Tag Archives: open government partnership

Threats to Broad Consultation and Participation in Brazil, Co-chair of Open Government Partnership

14 Feb

As co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, in a very few months Brazil will play host to a meeting among more than 50 countries participating in an unprecedented global initiative: a ‘multinational and multi-stakeholder’ effort to improve accountability, transparency, access to information, and greater participation in the affairs of government. A sort of club for countries committed to openness, the OGP was announced at the United Nations in September 2011 and will take on a more concrete character after the April 2012 meeting in Brasilia.

 Perplexing Participation

Ironically, the most difficult of the initiative’s goals is perhaps the least abstract – securing broad citizen participation. As the lead non-governmental coordinator for the OGP, U.S.-based Global Integrity developed a ‘Networking Mechanism’ to try to spur collaboration between governments, citizens, and organizations. But creating collaborative synergies from the outside-in is not easy. I signed up early for the Mechanism, as have colleagues of mine, but none of us has been approached by government or other NGOs here in Brazil. Indeed, not unlike other countries involved in the OGP, Brazil appears to be having a tough time fulfilling one of the 7 basic tenets of the initiative:

STEP 3: Undertake the broad public consultation to inform the government’s OGP commitments, and identify a multi-stakeholder forum for regular public consultation on OGP implementation.

Three threats may be preventing participation from being ‘broad’ and ‘consultative.’ First, some governments tend to act as the ‘command-central’ of participative initiatives, leading participation in a corporatist fashion. Second, participation in some countries exhibits elements of a clubiness that  goes against the plural and transparent principles upon which the OGP was established. Third, many governments are just plain behind, and as a result have not encouraged or facilitated meaningful participation. On February 13th 2012 freedominfo.org reported that 21 governments are “tardy” on updating their commitments. For its own part, Brazil has not reported any developments on the OGP website since September of 2011 – notwithstanding its example-setting position as co-chair. What’s more, no ‘broad consultation’ or ‘multi-stakeholder forum’ has taken place on the web — the best medium for a forum in a country as big as Brazil.

What I was Told by the Brazilian Government

Brazil's Comptroller General is Leading the OGP

I spoke with a senior representative of Brazil’s Comptroller General (CGU) in October of this year, just after the announcement of the Open Government Partnership in September. This official communicated the government’s clear commitment to the initiative, but was short on plans for concrete participatory mechanisms. Afterwards, I thanked my interlocutor by sending an email and recommending a few specialists on various facets of open government within Latin America. I never received a response, which is perhaps to be expected when interacting with a busy senior official. I sent a second mail in mid January, inquiring about public consultations on the OGP, and I waited five days before sending a follow-up inquiry.

This second mail was calculated to elicit a response, and it hit a bit of a nerve. I received an email telling me that the Comptroller General has been having “frank and open” dialogue with civil society. The CGU has been in close consultation with three NGOs: IBASE (Rio de Janeiro), INESC (Brasilia), and Transparência Hacker (more a ‘collective’ than an NGO proper). The official also pointed out that government had set up an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government (Comitê Interministerial Governo Aberto).

Yet thus far, the facts suggest a rather disappointing “broad public consultation” by the Brazilian government. A three-NGO consultation is, by any measure, inadequate for a country of 190 million people. And the last news on the internet about the “Inter-Ministerial Committee on Open Government” was from December 21st, around the time when this coordinating body was first established; the Committee also lacks any sort of official web presence.

Threats to a “Broad Public Consultation”

Anyone would plainly agree that these efforts fall considerably short of a “broad public consultation.” Yet while government efforts at interacting with the wider public still have much to be desired, it is ultimately civil society leaders who should be taking the initiative to urge government to move forward, and to undertake consultation on their own. The government-society consultation should be the last step in a broad public deliberation orchestrated by civic representatives in what is ultimately an initiative to benefit citizens.

Both government and the NGO community should be providing open forums for input, announcements, and updates on meetings with whoever is having ‘frank and open’ discussions. ‘Frank and open’ does not mean transparent unless the content of those discussions is visible and readily inferable to the public i.e. at a minimum, online.

The danger of government-led policy initiatives becoming a ‘club’ affair among a few civil society representatives is ever-present, especially within the Latin American political context. Much like other regions, Latin America has a history of civic-initiated movements that are summarily incorporated within an ‘official’ or ‘party-based’ framework. The result is often neutralization or co-optation.

But the other threat, the threat of exclusivity as opposed to inclusivity, is universal. One leading Canadian NGO, the Canadian Council on Social Development recently wrote:

To date, open government discussions have not included perspectives from grassroots and thematic public data and information users, producers, and those actively involved with deliberating with government. The discussion to date has primarily been within CIO and IT sectors.

To its credit, the Canadian government has at least provided a venue for public input, including a Twitter forum on December 19th, 2011. It also recently posted an update on its OGP commitments, dated January 31st 2012.

Three-level Dialogue

It is clear that dialogue should first start with “broad consultations” within society. Government might help by urging organizations to set up a broad steering committee that can reach out to various parts and sectors of the country. But ultimately, organizations should take it upon themselves to coordinate and reach out, avoiding an exclusive dialogue with government and a handful of other ‘elite’ organizations – as attractive as that might be. Second, government must set up a broad forum – on and offline – to entertain suggestions and concerns from all sectors and geographic regions.

Finally, it is worthwhile thinking about how civic leaders and governmental officials in one country might help those in another. This third level of dialogue is essential, and in this respect Global Integrity’s Networking Mechanism has been disappointingly under-utilized. Countries like Brazil – fledgling and uneven democracies with traditions of centralized control and a young third sector – might do well to reach outside of their borders and seek-out examples, direction and dialogue.

Reviewing the New Brazilian President’s 1st Semester: Policy

22 Jul

Sure, federal governments run the postal service, a military that doesn’t have a lot to do, and a few social programs, but what the heck are they good for anyways, besides causing a lot of bickering in Congress?

You’re not likely to find very good answers perusing the news. Look in any newspaper and you’ll see that headlines refer to conflict—the politics of policy make the news, not policy itself. Good policy analysis is difficult to find, which makes understanding what the heck goes on at the federal level a very difficult exercise indeed. Here is a brief overview of some of the more noteworthy policy outputs of the Rousseff administration during her first semester in office:

1. Raising the minimum wage:  I wrote about the raise back in February when it was enacted. The monthly minimum wage went from $510 in 2010 to $545 in 2011 (about US$345), a 6 percent raise. The rise in inadequate, given that Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are considered among the world’s top 15 most expensive cities at the moment, and inflation is now growing at about 6.5 percent annually. On the other hand, full employment in Brazil is causing labor shortages and wage inflation, which may signal higher real wages. Most workers earn more than one minimum salary; construction workers who work as laborers, for example, earn approximately two minimum wages.

2.  Raising tax exemption rates: A correlate of adjusting the minimum wage is adjusting minimum rates for tax exemption. If you made less than R$1500 per month in Brazil, you were exempt from tax. For each year of the Rousseff government, this rate will increase by 4.5 percent, so in 2011 it is R$1556, and in 2012 it will be R$1637. The rate should theoretically keep pace with inflation, but it currently falls two points short. What this ultimately means is that if inflation continues apace, the government will be taxing more Brazilians each year if wages are adjusted for inflation. Paulo Pereira da Silva (PDT-SP) and the unions proposed an annual hike of 6.47 percent, but the government refused.

3. “Brazil Without Misery” or Brasil sem Miséria: A social program that involves expanding basic services, such as electricity, sanitation, literacy, and other basic public services. The program follows in the tradition of the famous Bolsa Familia championed by Lula (although originated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso), which provides cash transfers to families conditional on their children attending school. The scale of Bolsa Familia and its popularity in the poor northeast are widely viewed to have handed Lula his second presidential election victory. Brazil Without Misery may do the same for Dilma.

4. Creation of Limited Liability Employment: Previously, opening a company required having a partner, to create broader liability and accountability. Now, a single person can open a limited business. The only requirement is that the total capital outlays must equal or exceed 100 minimum salaries, in other words, R$54,500, or about US$35,000. Good for entrepreneurship and the formalization of the informal sector, but still a high capital requirement for most Brazilians.

5. The National Strategic Border Plan, or Plano Estratégico de Fronteiras: The plan is to fight cross-border crime, including arms, animal, and human trafficking, drug-smuggling, and environmental destruction. Announced in June and coordinated by various police forces, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Justice, the plan has generated little if any reporting.

A few Additional Good Policy Calls:

Putting an End to the Pão de Açucar-Carrefour Merger Fiasco:

The President effectively vetoed an embryonic plan hatched by the Grupo Pão de Açucar, one of Brazil’s largest grocers, and tentatively approved by the National Development Bank of Brazil (BNDES): to take over another of Brazil’s largest grocers, the French group, Carrefour. The resulting gorgon would have controlled about a quarter of the national supermarket industry, much to the detriment of other chains and consumers. BNDES has earned a reputation for fostering oligopolies; it funds a small group of privileged Brazilian firms—with taxpayer money at privileged rates—that then proceed to gouge Brazilian consumers. Until 2009 there was absolutely no transparency in the BNDES. The rationale behind the BNDES, apparently, is to fund Brazilian companies to be so large that they can compete on an international scale, notwithstanding their homegrown inefficiencies. According to various news sources, the BNDES President Luciano Coutinho fell out of Rousseff’s good graces after the Pão de Açucar-Carrefour episode.

Mass-Dismissals in the Department of Transport and Infrastructure (DNIT):

The carnage continues until today—more than 15 top officials of the DNIT have been pressured out of a job by the President’s Office, according to today’s Folha de São Paulo. As my last blog post conveys, Rousseff appears to be keen on sending a message to other allied-controlled Ministries: corruption will not be tolerated. Seven cases against DNIT officials have been opened by the Comptroller General. The Ministry of Tourism was the latest government agency to come under scrutiny. According to today’s Jornal Globo, the Ministry paid more than R$52 million for online courses provided by an NGO run by an ex-politico with several corruption cases on his record.

Joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as Co-Chair

Although it is questionable whether Brazil should qualify for the OGP, let alone serve as Co-Chair alongside the U.S. , this surprising commitment to open government at least sets up positive expectations. The most important pending issue is to approve the country’s long-awaited freedom of information law. Then active transparency has to be a focus, from tax transparency, transparency on environmental policy questions, to transparency on how public money is being spent. Open government also sets up the expectation for greater governmental open-data initiatives that may be leveraged by Brazil’s advocates, hackers and technologists.

Brazil’s willingness to join the Open Government Partnership is a decisive demonstration that Brazil is not “turning to the left” à la Hugo Chavez, but rather charting out its own pragmatic course. This route is unquestionably closer to the U.S. Not only is Brazil co-chairing the OGP alongside its Anglo-American neighbor, but the U.S. recently promised to lend its “full support” to Brazil in its quest to claim a seat on a reformed U.N. Security Council. The two American Goliaths are undeniable getting cozy with each other.

Freedom of Information Bill in Jeopardy as Rousseff Backtracks

17 Jun

[Published on http://www.freedominfo.org/news/ by Greg Michener]

President Dilma Rousseff reversed her support for expedited passage of a Brazilian freedom of information law this week, ceding to Senators’ desire to reappraise the law and include weakening amendments. The proposed changes to bill 41/2010 aim to eliminate time limits on how long information can be classified as secret and held from the public. Such amendments would contravene regional and national legal guarantees, in addition to delaying and enfeebling a prospective freedom of information law.

About-face Casts Doubt on Open Government Partnership and International Seminar

The government’s decision is a surprising about-face. Rousseff initially sought enactment of a freedom of information law on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day. This earlier commitment to transparency coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit and his invitation for Brazil to co-chair the Open Government Partnership, due to be announced at the inauguration of the United Nations in September of this year. While casting doubt on Brazil’s role within this promising initiative, Rousseff’s actions also put into question the purpose of an International Seminar on Access to Public Information due to be held in Brasilia in a month’s time, on the 7th and 8th of July.

Transparency as a Priority?

Brazil is only one of a few remaining countries in the Americas continuing to hold out against a freedom of information law, the others being Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Over the last ten years eleven countries in the region have adopted laws, including Panama (2002), Peru (2002), Mexico (2002), the Dominican Republic (2004), Ecuador (2004), Honduras (2006), Nicaragua (2007), Guatemala (2008), Uruguay (2008), Chile (2008), and most recently, El Salvador, in March 2011.[1] Rousseff’s actions, which will delay and jeopardize the integrity of Brazil’s prospective freedom of information law, have led Brazil advocate organizations Artigo XIX, Conectas, and ABRAJI, to issue statements condemning the move.

Bowing to Pressures in the Senate

Rousseff’s decision bows to the wishes of Senate President, José Sarney, and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Fernando Collor (1990-92). Both politicians are ex-presidents, Sarney having presided from 1985 to 1990 and Collor from 1990 to 1992, before he was impeached on charges of corruption and influence trafficking. Both Senators are also regarded as transparency-adverse chieftains (coronels) from poor northeastern states, where they exercise enormous political and economic control. Senator Sarney justified his adherence to the current policy of “eternal secrecy” (sigilo eterno) by explaining: “Lately, all of us have been beating up on our country. Let’s embrace the country and preserve what it has. We won’t open up those wounds from the past, from our history.”[2]

Senators Collor and Sarney

The reversal represents an apparent effort to maintain the coherence of Rousseff’s majority coalition in the Senate, placating powerful leaders. But President Rousseff’s compromises are also causing internal frictions within her own party. The leader of the President’s Worker’s Party (PT) in the Senate, Humberto Costa, told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, “the PT does not agree with changes to the project, because it is not in favor of eternal secrecy.” Any changes in the Senate would then need to be approved in the Chamber of Deputies before a law could be passed. Rousseff has made calls to set the bill aside for a few months, which suggests the law may not be passed until late 2011 or even 2012, going into operation a year later– almost too late to scrutinize infrastructure projects now underway for the World Cup (2014), the Olympics (2016), and Brazil’s aggressive hydro dam projects.

Eternal Secrecy Contravenes Regional and National Law

If the proposed weakening amendments are successful, they will snub the Organization of American States’ 2010 Inter-American Court’s decision, Gomes Lund v. Brasil (2010), which mandates that Brazil open all information relevant to the investigation of human rights abuses. It also runs contrary to the creation of a Truth Commission, a measure now being debated in the Lower House of parliament. Finally, eternal secrecy stands in contravention of Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, articles 5 and 37, both of which guarantee the right to access public information.

[1] For more information on the conditions that led to enactment of these laws, see http://gregmichener.com/Dissertation.html

[2] “Ultimamente, todos nós nos acostumamos a bater um pouco no nosso país. Vamos amar um pouco o país e preservar o que ele tem. Não vamos abrir essas feridas do passado, da história.” Reported by the Globo Newspaper, 14 June, 2011. Available at: http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2011/06/nao-podemos-fazer-o-wikileaks-da-historia-do-brasil-diz-sarney.html