Thinking globally

Thirty-three information commissioners—a.k.a freedom of information ombudsmen—from 25 countries gathered April 21-23 for the 9th International Conference of Information Commissioners to discuss transparency issues and share successes and challenges. It was a great honor to represent OGIS at the conference, hosted by the Chilean Transparency Council, in Santiago, Chile.

FOI ombudsmen from around the globe met recently in Chile.  (NARA Identifier 2581365)
Freedom of information ombudsmen from around the globe met recently in Chile. (NARA Identifier 2581365)

Among the themes of the conference, which coincided with the sixth anniversary of the enactment of Chile’s transparency law, were challenges for universal exercise of the right to access public information and the importance of government and civil society partnerships.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet opened the conference, noting that transparency provides “democratic legitimacy” and makes “Chile a country where the public and private sectors are no longer under suspicion” of such ills as corruption, whether real or perceived.

President Bachelet noted that just 19 percent of non-government workers in Chile know about the country’s six-year-old right-to-access law. It would be interesting to know the comparative figure for the U.S., particularly given that our law turns 50 next year, old enough to be the grandfather of Chile’s law.

During a presentation, I shared that although OGIS helps hundreds of requesters individually each year, one challenge we face is reaching disadvantaged requesters as groups and connecting with populations who don’t even know about their right to access.

Civil society, can, and often does, play an enormous role in helping disadvantaged populations understand and exercise their right to access. One model, I suggested, is the National Archives and Records Administration’s FOIA Advisory Committee, made up of FOIA experts from both inside and outside the government working to improve the FOIA process. Although not mandated specifically with helping disadvantaged populations such as the poor or the uneducated, cooperation between civil society and government goes a long way toward bettering the process for all.

I left the audience with a question: “How, I wonder, would right of access improve if we taught FOIA to all students—not just journalism and law students—as part of a robust civil education program?”

Information commissioners met separately for a day at the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Four working groups met on topics such as comparative jurisprudence and comparative analysis of transparency policies. I participated in the group examining mediation as a tool to advance the right of access to public information. It was interesting to see that mediation is a key service offered by FOI ombudsmen’s offices around the world.

Thanks to the help of two excellent translators, our group of about 10 commissioners jumped back and forth between Spanish and English discussing the importance of mediation in helping resolve disputes, ultimately making the FOIA process work better for all—requesters and agencies. Although there were some disagreements and some differences in the way various commissioners’ offices work, our group agreed that

  • alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is an important tool for the right to access public information and must be conducted within the framework of that right;
  • ADR must allow requesters and agencies to participate in the solution of their own conflict;
  • ADR in the framework of right to access information is unique; and
  • The ADR process (as opposed to the outcome) must be evaluated.

The group also agreed to share best practices for providing ADR in the context of the right to access public information.

It’s great to have colleagues from around the globe who share OGIS’ commitment to helping the freedom of information process work better for all—requesters and agencies! I returned to the office thinking of new and different ways to approach our work, particularly as our agency assessment program grows.