You have been involved as a trainer on proactive transparency in a training workshop for civil servants that has been taking place over the last few days in Sarajevo. Can you tell us more about that?
– Basically, we are training civil servants through the Programme for Strengthening Public Institutions with a view to increasing the number of institutions practicing proactive disclosure. We work with public bodies that already employ good practices and have experience in proactive disclosure, which will share their experience and knowledge acquired during this training workshop with other civil servants, so that other public bodies could improve their proactive transparency too.
Why are we doing this? There are multiple reasons. Proactive disclosure by government and transparency facilitate citizen participation, improve government and institutional accountability and enhance public trust in public administration. These are some of the benefits, but also, there are the commitments taken on in the area of proactive transparency, as well as the international commitments under the Open Government Partnership initiative. The right of access to information is a democratic right of all BiH citizens.
How do you rate the proactive transparency standards that have been developed in BiH by state institutions in partnership with civil society?
– First, I must point out that I had the privilege to be one of the experts involved in the drafting of the BiH Freedom of Access to Information Law between 1999 and 2001. Historically, it was one of the first such laws in the world; however, in the last 18 years a lot of new laws have been enacted, so that now there are 125 countries that have a freedom of information law in place. Back then when it was drafted, the BiH Freedom of Access to Information Law was good, but it does not regulate proactive disclosure. Therefore, it is important to have this initiative between civil society and specific state-level institutions, which is supported by GIZ on behalf of the German Federal Government. This initiative for proactive transparency is excellent. It tried, based on an analysis, to incorporate international standards in this area and I think it can help BiH to achieve international standards. I think it is very important that institutions adopt and implement the proactive transparency standards, but it is also important to incorporate proactive disclosure provisions in relevant legislation. This can be done through the Open Government Partnership, so there are no doubts whether disclosure should be practiced or not.
Why is it important that the authorities proactively disclose information of public importance?
– This is a very important question. There are various benefits citizens can enjoy from proactive disclosure. If citizens want to participate in public dialogue and public hearings, they need to have information first. The best way for citizens to obtain such information is through proactive disclosure by government, because we know that all citizens will not file an access to information request. Also, it is very important that public institutions understand that proactive transparency is not something that should be done because the EU or OGP say so, but that times have changed and today we all have easy and instant access to information. We have mobile phones, and we want to know how public works are carried out, if the water we use is safe and a lot of other things. Citizens expect to know at any moment what government is doing. Therefore, this is important in order to increase confidence in government and to enable citizen participation in public discussions. To strengthen the integrity of the civil service and the fight against corruption. Proactive disclosure can be very important to journalists. Journalists do not have time to file access to information requests in all situations. This kind of transparency is a means to fight against false news.
In BiH for a long time now there has been a debate about amendments to the Freedom of Access to Information Law, and the authorities act only upon requests. What does European practice say?
– European trend is for proactive disclosure to be a legal obligation. In February I was part of an EU mission in BiH and our task was to prepare recommendations for the BiH Ministry of Justice on how they can improve the Law. The recommendations we prepared included two important things. One is to incorporate the proactive transparency standard, and the other is to substantially improve the complaints procedure in this area. What we’ve noticed is that the countries that have a strong control over access to information also have better implementation of the law. In the countries of your region there are similar mechanisms. In Slovenia, Croatia, Albania and Serbia there are commissioners for information or bodies dedicated to ensuring implementation of this basic human right.
Although BiH has been a member of the Open Government Partnership since 2014, preparation of the first action plan is behind schedule. As somebody who sits on the Initiative’s Steering Board, how do you look at it?
– As part of the Initiative we monitor countries that are behind schedule in the implementation of the measures. I have to say that this is a particular concern that we have. However, the Open Government Partnership is a club that is based on voluntary accession, but also a club of democracies. For BiH it is important to be part of this club. In 2014 I was also in BiH and then I wanted to motivate civil society and government institutions to be part of the Initiative. I hope that BiH will develop its action plan soon because this could be your last chance to do it. It is important to hold a consultation with the public. Montenegro was also behindhand in drafting its action plan, but it has recently restarted its efforts in this area.
Signal to investors
It is not uncommon that some countries are behind schedule with the plan, but also OGP suspended some countries due to the delay, so this kind of consequence is not just an empty threat, but there are actual consequences. However, I am optimistic that BiH will develop its action plan in the next few months. Although there is no formal relationship between the EU and OGP, I think the participation in the Open Government Partnership is an important signal because increased transparency and civic engagement is important for the EU.
What are the opportunities and benefits that the Partnership offers to countries such as BiH?
– What it offers is the sharing of experiences between Member States on how best to do proactive disclosure. It facilitates the sharing of practices among governments around the world. BiH can learn what it needs to learn, and transfer this knowledge to others. The Partnership reminds us that we live in the Information Age, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and is a forum for government and civil society, with whose help the country will reap such benefits as citizen participation in decision-making, increased government accountability and higher public confidence in the government. Perhaps the most important advantage of transparency is that it increases economic opportunities for foreign investment in BiH.
Text: Oslobođenje, Adem Džaferović
Photo: Senad Gubelić