Brazil’s Plans for the Open Government Partnership and 5 Recommendations

12 Sep

Brazil unveiled tentative plans to make good on the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multi-country, multi-stakeholder international initiative to advance greater transparency, openness, accountability, and participation in government. Brazil and the U.S. are the Co-Chairs of the OGP, which is to be announced on September 20th by President Barack Obama at the opening of the United Nations in New York.

Brazil as a Beacon?

Brazil’s proposed initiatives are somewhat promising, and appear to be in line with the general spirit of the Open Government Partnership. But the proposals overlook basic transparency and accountability deficits that Brazil’s maturing democracy still needs to address. Brazil’s approach suggests a potential danger posed by the OGP: the ‘gov 2.0’ focus may be distracting emerging democracies from negotiating more systemic accountability and transparency lacunae.

Brazil’s ‘Boutique’ Transparency and Accountability Initiatives

Brazil has provided some boutique examples of transparency over the past few decades. The City of Porto Alegre pioneered a much-heralded participative budgeting process that 2.5 percent of Brazil’s 5500-or so municipalities have adopted, as have governments around the world. International institutions such as the International Budget Partnership have also praised Brazil for its online catalogue of Executive Branch expenses, archived in the Federal Transparency Portal.

These two innovations are to be commended. Yet I refer to them as ‘boutique’ because of their limited scope and their uneven performance and operability. Most critically, large gaps in the Portal’s data and its closed data format render it of limited utility for systematic monitoring efforts. Scraping the website is too laborious and time-consuming for the limited resources of Third Sector organizations.

Brazil’s Tentative Plans

The CGU is responsible for the OGP

Last week the group Transparencia Hacker [thackday@googlegroups] forwarded a powerpoint and five page Word document from the Comptroller General (CGU), the institution responsible for leading Brazil’s Open Government Partnership (OGP). I have also spoken with numerous people involved with the OGP, including Roberta Solís, the Chief Advisor for International Relations in the Comptroller General’s Office. The CGU has made a concerted effort to involve civil society stakeholders in the consultation process.

The documents outline Brazil’s tentative plans for the Open Government Partnership. These focus on improvements or new initiatives centering on:

a) A yet-to-be-enacted freedom of information law (read on).

b) Upgrades to the federal government’s Transparency Portal.

c) Events and interactions with the NGO and private sectors.

d) The integration of ombudsmen and participatory mechanisms into federal institutions and training programs.

e) A plan to be unveiled in March, 2012, for a “National Infrastructure on Open Data”[1] including a data.gov.br portal and accompanying IT contracting regulation.

f) A better integration and upgrade of current IT platforms to increase civic participation.

g) Providing data on government contractors and suppliers.

This list appears to be promising. But the federal government may consider a few other initiatives that are less ‘boutique 2.0’ and more focused on addressing fundamental lacunae that affect the quality of Brazil’s transparency and democracy.

5 Fundamental Lacunae Brazil Ought to Address

1. Putting pressure on the Chief Executive and Congress to pass the freedom of information law. Promised by Lula in 2006, introduced to Congress in 2009 and stuck in the Senate since passing the Lower House in May of 2010, the FOI bill is Brazil’s largest standing transparency deficit. Most recently, Senators in the Foreign Affairs Committee proposed stone-age amendments that would effectively turn the law into a secrecy measure. No plans for the bill’s imminent approval have been made public.

The President does have the power to pressure for its approval – her parliamentary coalition controls the Chamber – but evidently has thought better. Coalition leaders angered by recent corruption-crackdowns in Ministries held by their parties may help explain Rousseff’s soft-handed approach towards passage of the FOI law.

2. Brazil must approve the proposed Truth Commission now stalled in Congress alongside the FOI law. Brazil currently stands in contravention of two important decisions handed down by the Inter-American Court: the obligation to adopt freedom of information (Claude Reyes et al v. Chile, 2006) and access to historical memory (Gomes Lund v. Brasil, 2010). More information can be found in a post from June.

3. The Federal Government ought to organize wide-ranging federal-state and federal-municipal partnerships to make transparency more than just a federal phenomenon. Participatory budgeting ought to be expanded throughout the country. Brazil also needs to focus on establishing the basis for the country’s transparency infrastructure: a modernization of its record-keeping and IT systems. These initiatives need not infringe upon the constitutional division of powers. Suasion through publicity and non-institutional carrots and sticks would help advance a more integrated approach to good governance.

4.  Brazil urgently needs to make value-added (goods) taxes transparent to the public. If there is a 10% consumer tax on all goods, then when you buy a bar of soap for $1.00, you should have to pay $1.10 (10% tax) at the till. As it stands, import taxes, inter-state taxes, and value-added taxes are all hidden. Ultimately what is needed is a tax reform, a measure that President Rousseff has promised to introduce this year. Integrating transparency into this reform must stand as a priority. Citizens must become cognizant of what government appropriates from the public purse. This knowledge may help ignite demands for improved efficiency and probity in the public sector.

More to the point, disclosing tax-collection and the rationale behind it is democracy 101; the lack of visible efforts to inform the public about tax collection is effectively government by stealth –authoritarian. It is worth noting that most of these taxes are highly regressive value-added taxes that are hidden in the price of goods –they continue to tax the poor and skew income distribution, contributing to Brazil’s egregious inequality.

As it stands, citizens would have to be forensic accountants to understand the tax soup that saturates the consumer basket. Brazil’s tax to GDP ratio is the highest in the Americas at over 35 percent. High tax rates compensate for revenues that end up lost to corruption and waste. Better social auditing would help improve this situation, hence the urgent need for a FOI law and detailed obligations for active transparency.

5. Fifth, governments across Brazil must make public how they allocate advertising dollars and broadcasting concessions to the news media. Widespread co-optation of local media and the exclusive granting of concessions at all levels of government foster information asymmetries that contribute to Brazil’s unequal regional development. The centralizing tendency of federal power over the past decades may be seen as a manifestation of its inability to adequately monitor what exactly is going on at the state and municipal levels.

These are just a few of the pending priorities. There are many, many others.

Brazil’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiatives appear somewhat promising. Yet they still smack of a ‘boutique’ approach to showcasing the federal government’s minimally effective and unrepresentative efforts at combating corruption and improving transparency. The plans may focus too much on pleasing an international and elite audience, and too little on addressing Brazil’s more basic transparency and accountability lacunae.

The danger with the OGP lies herein: emulating the government 2.0 initiatives of advanced countries, such as the U.S. or the U.K., may be a premature strategy for emerging democracies. While advanced democracies are mostly tweaking and improving upon value-systems and infrastructure already in place, most countries within the OGP have only begun the adoption process.

What is needed is heavy collaboration between more advanced democracies, and countries still beginning to prioritize transparency and accountability. With 79 countries qualified for the OGP yet only 21 so far committed, it remains to be seen whether countries have the will to engage in this type of collaboration.



[1] Infraestrutura Nacional de Dados Abertos, INDA

7 Responses to “Brazil’s Plans for the Open Government Partnership and 5 Recommendations”

  1. Matthias September 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Very interesting post, as usual.

    ‘Coalition leaders angered by recent corruption-crackdowns in Ministries held by their parties may help explain Rousseff’s soft-handed approach towards passage of the FOI law.’

    I think that resistance to a FOI Law comes from many quarters. Regardless of crackdowns on specific politicians today, large pressures from the military and from other sectors (foreign affairs, intelligence communities) probably explain the difficulty in getting a FOI Law enacted.

    ‘Brazil currently stands in contravention of two important decisions handed down by the Inter-American Court: the obligation to adopt freedom of information (Claude Reyes et al v. Chile, 2006) and access to historical memory (Gomes Lund v. Brasil, 2010)’

    It is not clear whether Brazil’s secrecy legislation would necessary run afoul of the IACtHR standards articulated in Claude Reyes, but it would probably face strong criticism. However, it isn’t the case that a Truth Commission would meet the requirements of the ‘Guerrilha do Araguaia’ Case. The IACtHR actually required that Brazil prosecute and punish the authors of the crimes listed in that decision; not merely establish the truth, but actually punish. This would seem impossible without a constitutional amendment striking down the amnesty law, given that the Supreme Court has already pronounced it’s constitutionality. Needless to say, such an amendment is highly unlikely.

    Lula’s administration tried to push for a truth commission in the PNDH3. The military — quite short-sightedly in my view — opposed even that, and the result is that Brazil’s condemnation by the IACtHR was far more severe than it might have been, had Brazil been able to point to a truth commission as proof of its commitment to elucidate the facts. Then again, perhaps the military knew all too well that even the harshest condemnation in the Araguaia case would lead to no fundamental changes in the matter.

    ‘Federal Government ought to organize wide-ranging federal-state and federal-municipal partnerships to make transparency more than just a federal phenomenon’

    That is very complicated from constitutional and political perspectives. The Federal Principle would probably create obstacles for a heavy-handed approach by the federal government trying to force transparency institutions and processes on all states and municipalities. It could only do so in those areas for which it has main or sole competency. So I think that a lot has been done by the federal government on this front, but always by indirect incentives: ‘So Mr Mayor wants to disburse Bolsa Familia funds? Sure, no problem, just establish your municipal education board, with representatives from different political parties and civil society organizations — as stipulated in the Federal Education Law –, and the cash will start flowing…’. This kind of incentive actually works, as opposed to adopting a framework law, that could eventually be overruled by the supreme court. Before Bolsa Familia, education boards in many municipalities existed only on paper.

    ‘Citizens must become cognizant of what government appropriates from the public purse. This knowledge may help ignite demands for improved efficiency and probity in the public sector.’

    I do not think that tax information is unavailable, at the aggregate level. Anyone with basic knowledge in taxation in Brazil knows three things: tax rates are high, as a percentage of GDP; taxes are mostly focused on payroll and consumption; and, taxes are highly regressive, precisely because they focus on these two sources. Anyone can download the latest information from the Receita Federal, the IBGE, or other sources (World Bank, OECD).

    It might, however, not be clear what one pays in taxes for each good or service purchased, but that is certainly true in other countries as well (can an average consumer really tell, with precision, how much of the price of telephone services, or a candy bar goes to local, state and federal government in the US, Germany or Japan? I doubt so…)

    ‘Brazil’s tax to GDP ratio is the highest in the Americas at over 35 percent; meanwhile, much of this money ends up in waste and corruption.’

    This assertion seems far too general and quite ideological, really. Last time I checked, nearly half of Brazil tax revenues were spent on servicing and rolling the (internal) debt, which is held by banks and investors. How much of public debt turns out to be spent in corruption and waste is a matter that is difficult to measure. I do not doubt that there is much of both, but the notion that reducing taxes (or rendering revenues more transparent) somehow leads to reduction in corruption and waste requires evidence. It is on the spending side that anti-corruption and anti-waste measures must focus, not on the collection side.

    ‘The plans may focus too much on pleasing an international and elite audience, and too little on addressing Brazil’s more basic transparency and accountability lacunae.’

    This is absolutely true. Then again, there is just so much the federal government can do, without infringing on the rights of states, municipalities and individuals. I wouldn’t dismiss federal efforts as ’boutique’: I’d rather acknowledge that changing a culture of patrimonialism, with powerful, deep-rooted elites and privileges is not something you do by merely ‘showing will’.

    • gregmichener September 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

      Great response Matthias, as per usual. You’re certainly better informed on the subject of the Truth Commission than I am. Interesting details. Brazil is in contravention of Claude Reyes et al, but on the issue of a FOI law– the precedent requires all countries in the Americas to provide mechanisms for free access to government information. As for taxes, I don’t think your average joe is going to go to the Receita website and download them…we’re talking about basic transparency urgencies, not complex transparency. Finally, dialoguing with muncipal and state governments need not imply constitutional wrangling or any institutional approach. Praise and criticism through national media outlets are one informal mechanism, and there are many other ways this might happen. I’m going to change the comment on corruption, because you’re right, the comment is a bit slipshod and the association is tenuous at best.
      Thanks for the feedback!

      • Matthias September 13, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

        Thanks for your reply. As I said, I do think that the current Brazilian legislation on FOI is lacking, and would come under criticism at the IACtHR, but I’m not sure of the standards and how they would be violated. A long time ago (circa 1996) I looked into the matter and was of course impressed by the state-centric notion that underpinned the old law. I do not recall whether it contained any procedural mechanism for individuals to request information directly, but then again, there are things such as the right to petition, and the habeas data, both introduced by the 1988 Constitution, that could be construed — by a glib government defense team — as a network of guarantees of transparency. I wouldn’t buy it, but who knows whether an international Court would? I agree that taxes are not transparent in Brazil, but then again, I believe they aren’t transparent anywhere… I can’t look at a product here and say ’23% of this goes here or there’. At best I can have an idea of what the VAT for end-consumers is, but that is only a part of the product’s tax structure. For people to be irate about taxes, it suffices that they know that state revenue is >30% of GDP. I think there is far less concern as to the fact that it is the poor, the employed, and the (small) middle classes that foot the bill, and that — for me — is the truly tragic issue; it is not a matter of the size of state revenues, but rather how the cost is distributed in society, and what kind of incentives this creates. In any case, always a pleasure to read you.

  2. Rachel September 20, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Hey Greg, thanks for your answer to my comment on the previous post, only now did I get a chance to see it.

    Once again, I hate – hate – hate to be the naysayer, but I get a feeling the general population wouldn’t support item number 1 as much as it’s necessary for such pressure to affect congress and exec.

    This is bascially because most people that have any idea of what our classified, confidential, etc. info contains are terrified that neighboring countries would react not so diplomatically to land theft that alledgedly might have or have not occurred…

    I have no judgement as to whether such fear is founded or not, but it is an existing one.

    But I do agree with n. 4 – although the ratio of taxation could hardly be pinned down with precision, seeing this in numbers and not as a loose idea (“Taxes sure are high”) might work people up a bit; if not on tax cuts, maybe on items 3 and 5.

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