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’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
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” 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.
 Infraestrutura Nacional de Dados Abertos, INDA