Executive Summary

As countries are trying to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of access to information (ATI) continues to be critical in rebuilding communities and strengthening their public institutions.
Last update: December 6, 2021

Since the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, the world has witnessed a growing public demand for information that is accurate, timely and reliable. The need for openness, transparency, and accountability has never been stronger. With civic space becoming more reduced during the pandemic, and false content ever expanding, access to information has helped counterbalance the situation, serving as a tool for transparency, through which the public could exercise their right to request for information. This has enabled public participation and civic engagement in response to the crisis.

As the UN custodian agency for SDG Indicator 16.10.2, UNESCO continues to report on progress on the adoption and the implementation of Access to Information legal guarantees worldwide. The Organization also promotes efforts to advocate for access to public information, including reinforcing its  relevance to crisis recovery and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This report captures these different dimensions, presenting key findings from the 2021  UNESCO Survey on Public Access to Information and offering different case studies and good practices with a special focus on rebuilding communities and public institutions with access to information.

This year’s survey adopted a revised methodology, taking into account feedback from participating countries and independent experts in 2020. The new methodology was also tested by over 80 representatives of oversight institutions responsible for access to information worldwide, and further validated by the UN’s Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators. Launched in April 2021, the survey engaged responses by 102 countries and territories, an increase by 48% compared to the previous year. This positive trend demonstrates a growing enthusiasm among countries in reporting on ‘Access to Information’ within the framework of the SDGs.

The 2021 survey has yielded insights into the main tendencies in the implementation of legal guarantees for public access to information worldwide. The findings enable a better understanding of the gaps and challenges that need to be addressed by countries in their efforts towards achieving this SDG target.

Among countries with ATI legal guarantees, the survey noted a positive trend towards acknowledging the importance of a dedicated arrangement within public bodies to deal with access to information, which in itself sets the foundation for proactive and reactive disclosure.

Another finding is that countries that have a specialised oversight institution for access to information are likely to perform better than those without. On the other hand, the survey flagged some inconsistencies in data and information, signalling that record-keeping remains one of the major areas of improvement for these oversight institutions. Since what cannot be measured cannot be improved, it is essential to ensure adequate and reliable records of the requests and appeals received, so that evidence can be generated to track progress.

The rolling-out the survey also demonstrated the important role of networks of oversight institutions in advocating for SDG monitoring and reporting, as well as mobilizing their members in taking part in global-wide activities related to the SDGs. This was made evident by the fact that 80% of the respondents are members of the International Conference of Information Commissioners, the International Ombudsman Institute and Red de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información. These networks could serve as platforms, through which SDG monitoring and reporting could be improved over time, contributing to effective implementation of ATI guarantees.

Reporting on SDG 16.10.2 serves as an incentive for countries to improve their legal regulatory frameworks, their implementation and/or their enforcement. In this regard, the annual UNESCO survey, which provides a standardised approach to monitoring SDG 16.10.2, has proven useful for countries in measuring and reporting progress at the national level, including in their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) of progress made on the SDGs. This was evident in Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Uruguay, which have used the data collected through the survey to report on their ATI progress in their VNRs. In this regard, this report also presents an analysis of countries’ reporting on SDG 16.10.2 in the VNRs since 2019. In 2021, out of 42 countries that submitted their reviews to the VNR process, 28 countries (67%) reported on ‘access to information’.

While 132 UN Member States have adopted various ATI legal guarantees, states that have not adopted such guarantees could boost access to information for their citizens by considering similar steps. As demonstrated by case studies and good practices in this report, for countries  confronted with the urgent need to recover from the pandemic, build public trust, strengthen their institutions, improve public service delivery and address corruption, access to information can serve as a means to achieve these objectives.

With only nine years left to achieve the SDGs by 2030, and with global challenges becoming more interconnected, the message is clear that access to information should be the thread that binds together diverse actions towards the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and beyond.