Transparently 2017

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So much has happened since I last wrote 6 months ago that I am rather embarrassed not to have captured some of the more savory parts of the Brazilian drama in writing. But the academic’s life, alas, is about publishing the sort of article that only a few experts read – in journals that take a year or more review and print our works…by which point they become relatively irrelevant….

One of my goals as an academic is to strive for policy relevance, so here is a short summary of how I have modestly achieved this goal since the beginning of the year:

In the News

On the news media side of things, I have given quite a few interviews in the news media (two on national TV), and also written several opinion pieces, including this one in Folha de São Paulo, with Irene Niskier, and this one in the Estado de São Paulo, with Karina Furtado.

These pieces highlight two principal ideas. First, oversight responsibility for the access to information law´s (ATI) implementation and compliance in Brazil is a mess at the subnational level, with a hodgepodge of institutions trying to fill gaps, but often with no one really taking responsibility and no recourse to an external appeal, except the courts. There is also serious underinvestment in ATI at the federal level, as we illustrate by comparing Brazil with Chile and Mexico. Second, the problem in providing greater oversight is not about budgets; it’s about reallocating budgets. In the Folha piece we compare the cost of running California’s Legislative Analyst office and auditor general versus the cost of the equivalent institutions in the state of Similar size – São Paulo. You guessed it, São Paulo’s Tribunal de Contas spends more than six times its equivalent in California – nearly 1% of the state budget (vs. 0.07% in California).

Resistance to Open Data Based Transparency

I have always been intrigued by the sources and manifestations of resistance to transparency. After all, this is the topic of my doctoral work, and it is the topic of my perpetually forthcoming book, God willing it emerges from the womb.

Although I did not consciously steer the research of one of my Master’s students, Otavio Ritter, towards the question of resistance, it appeared to be the most interesting motif in his research on education open data  policies in Brazil and the UK.

So in our paper, co-authored shortly after his defense, we ask what is retarding the penetration of open data-based initiatives in public policies such as education. Yes, government open data policies are way behind in terms of expectations. More specifically, we compare resistance to open data-based performance transparency metrics in Brazil and the UK’s primary education systems. The article was published by Public Administration in March 2017. Among other factors, stakeholder resistance to open data policies is retarding the pervasiveness of open data-based policy initiatives. We shine a light on how political, professional and privacy concerns drive different forms of resistance. Otavio Ritter works as a computer systems specialist at Brazil’s federal film regulator, ANCINE.

But come February 2017…

We started to put together our research on…

5 Years of FOI in Brazil

May 2017 marked the fifth anniversary of Brazil’s freedom of information law. We held a seminar at the FGV – together with the Federal Comptroller General (CGU) – to commemorate the milestone. There we released a working paper, now under review at RAP, analyzing the law’s progress to date.

Among the more important findings: all powers and levels of government comply weakly with the law, save the federal government. States and municipalities respond to about one-in-every-two requests. The major problem, of course is oversight. Brazil is a hodgepodge of crisscrossed oversight responsibilities, which often results in undersight. Et voilà. I plan on writing a post about undersight later on.

The Importance of FOI Platforms

More promisingly, we find the electronic platforms to submit requests,  receive responses and launch appeals are associated with significantly higher (225%) odds of receiving a response. It is not clear, however, whether those municipalities and states who adopt these platforms are more committed to FOI, and therefore more likely to respond well, or whether the platform is having some independent effect on compliance.

I was pleased to see that this event garnered significant media. Our 2016 event and report on Local Transparency in Brazil – held less than a month before municipal elections – curiously received almost no media attention.

Sectoral Transparency Evaluations in Brazil

One of the goals of the FGV’s Public Transparency Program, which I founded in 2014, is to engage in sectoral evaluations of transparency in Brazil.

The Transparency of Forest Governance

I have been lucky enough to have had a couple of exceptional students helping me out. One is Eduardo Bizzo, who works on sustainability issues in the Amazon region for the BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank. Using  methodologies developed by the Public Transparency Program, Bizzo’s research into the transparency of state-level efforts to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon revealed disturbingly low levels of compliance with Brazil´s access to information law. Perhaps the most important points in the paper are a) that the levels of compliance are far below average numbers in Brazil – which we have compiled from all evaluations to date; and, b) forest governance is a multi-level, multi-stakeholder, and multi-agency endeavor for which information is the sine qua non of effective collaboration. How can there be collaboration (i.e. policy coordination) without transparency?

This paper is just the straight goods…I wish we could have added a fancy regression or a typology to it to give it a little more zing. But there was no inferential supplements needed; the facts in the paper are important. They speak volumes about one of Brazil´s biggest policy challenges and one of the world´s most significant environmental concerns – reducing deforestation in the Amazon. We co-authored this paper that first appeared in August, published in Environmental Policy and Governance.

The Transparency of Federal Hospitals and Health Institutions

A second exceptional student is Tatiana Cerniger ,who works at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, one of Brazil´s best known federal Health think-tanks. Like Bizzo (above), she also used the Public Transparency Program’s methodologies to evaluate 68 federal health institutions, as well as 104 partnership agreements. The results are extremely varied, but let it be said that even some of Brazil’s most prestigious federal health institutions have very far to go in meeting basic transparency obligations. Some hospitals do not even have websites. Cerniger will be defending her project in late November, and then she’ll be working on an article, likely to be submitted to Health Affairs or Health Policy.

The Transparency of Nonprofit Government Contractors

In the Public Transparency’s 2016 report on Local Government in Brazil, the fifth chapter was written by a talented undergraduate student in the FGV School of Economics (FGV-EPGE), Rodolfo Luna. He evaluated 104 nonprofit government contractors based on their adherence with transparency obligations in the FOI law (and regulation) and the Regulatory Law on Civil Society Organizations. The trick here is that this last law only went into effect six months after we performed the evaluation. So we performed the same transparency evaluation six months later. This before-and-after research design did reveal significantly improved compliance (someone is paying attention!). This is good news for transparency and the rule of law in Brazil. We are currently getting this paper into shape to send to Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.

There is more, but I think that is plenty for now.

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