Shaping the way political systems work: Access to Information for inclusive, effective and accountable institutions

Political systems are made up of formal institutions, as well as key principles, or substance. This substance is a set of common ideas that underpins and permeates the entire system, defining the way it works. It is the common agreements upon which politics rest and that underpin the way formal institutions operate. They become an anchoring principle, and as such, they define how the system works, its ‘philosophy’.
Last update: 21 апреля 2022

A fundamental such principle, as highlighted by the Goal 16 Target 10, is the idea that citizens have the right to know what is happening in their political systems. Access to Information legislation is a key part of this right. 

Access to information is at the heart of effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions, which are a cornerstone of Goal 16. Equal access to information for everyone, especially historically marginalised groups, is a key prerequisite for the building of such institutions. It is critical for political actors to be clear about how the mechanisms of inclusion, such as gender-targeted public funding for political parties or different quota systems, are prioritised in the political agenda, developed into policy and implemented. Such transparency is necessary for an evidence-based evaluation of progress towards more inclusive institutions capable of representing society in ways that can be verified.[1]

Secondly, effective institutions rely more and more on data, and proper and fair management of data relies on openness in the way data is handled, accessed, and managed. Securing access to such information allows institutions to harness all the potential of data effectively without compromising fundamental rights. This has been the case, for example, in the efforts to bring cheaper medicines to patients in South Africa or to drive more effective reconstruction in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes.[2]

Lastly, is the key role that access to information laws play in creating accountable institutions. Accountability refers to the capacity to demand answers, voice concerns and, if needed, enforce consequences, either positive or negative, on governing actors and institutions.[3] It captures the idea that, even if decision and policy making powers are delegated to public authorities and representatives, the formal holders of power are citizens. In order to exert their power, full and guaranteed access to information is a sine qua non. For accountability to work, rights holders need to have access to the information necessary to answer all the questions they might have. Examples abound, such as the different anticorruption protests that have recently taken place, some of which were based, among other things, on the access (or rather lack of access) to information.[4] In these cases, protestors demanded more accountability from political leadership and clear consequences for corrupt practices.

At a broader level, the International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices observed there were stark differences in the average levels of Checks on Government, Clean Elections, and Impartial Administration between countries with Access to Information laws, and those without[5], indicating the close relationship between accountable institutions and Access to Information. This suggests that countries with Access to Information laws in place are, on average, more accountable, their institutions are more independent and impartial, and their elections are cleaner.

Checks on Government, Clean Elections, and Impartial Administration between countries with and without ATI laws
Checks on Government, Clean Elections, and Impartial Administration between countries with and without ATI laws.

When Access to Information is guaranteed through constitutional, statutory or policy means, not only is a legal mechanism created, but a change in the substance of the political system appears. This change in the substance can permeate all levels of governance, and push authorities towards more inclusive, more effective and more accountable governance. It is upon these institutional principles that societies can flourish.

[1] International IDEA. Gender-targeted Public Funding for Political Parties: A Comparative Analysis. International IDEA. 2018

[2] van Schalkwyk, Young and Verhulst 2017 (van Schalkwyk. Francois, Andrew Young and Stefaan Verhulst. Code4SA Cheaper Medicines for Consumers. Open Data for Developing Economies Case Studies. July 2017); McMurren et al 2017 (McMurren, Juliet, Saroj Bista, Andrew Young and Stefaan Verhulst. Open Data to Improve disaster Relief. Open Data for Developing Economies Case Studies. July 2017).

[3] Bjuremalm, Helena, Alberto Fernandez Gibaja and Jorge Valladares. Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery: A Practical Guide to Identify Improvements through Assessment. International IDEA (2014).

[4] Chayes, Sarah. Fighting the Hydra: Lessons from Worldwide Protests Against Corruption. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2018.

[5] International IDEA. Global State of Democracy Indices, Version 5, (1975-2020). 2021.

*** This analysis is a special contribution from International IDEA to UNESCO, written by Alberto Fernandez Gibaja and Alexander Hudson