Colombia: a major step forward towards the culture of transparency

Colombians cycling along the streets of Bogota. Thanks to the new access to information law, these citizens will now be able to know more about what their government and public institutions are doing.

On 6 March, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos signed the country’s access to information law.  This was the last formal step of a long process led by civil society organisations collaborating with many sectors in the country.

The right of citizens to know what governments and public institutions are doing, and how public resources are allocated, are among the most important instruments in the fight against corruption. A society where information about policy, administration and civil rights is both free and easy to understand presents fewer possibilities for corruption to take hold.

For example, in recent years Colombia has been hit by major corruption scandals involving large amounts of money aimed at improving infrastructure projects, health services, tax administration and military forces, but which ended up in the pockets of high-level officials and private sector partners. The new transparency law could help tackle corruption in Colombia’s public contracting and public service delivery that could help improve social, political and economic development.

The law could also help in the implementation of the eventual peace agreement that is being negotiated since November 2012 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Both parties have agreed that a key issue for a post-conflict scenario will be improving mechanisms for citizens´ participation as well as the oversight of public policies, activities that require effective access to public information by all citizens in the country.

The full picture makes the difference

The law has gone through many phases since the first draft was elaborated by civil society organisations in 2011. The text includes very positive elements on who is obliged to provide information and what information needs to be given. This will probably be what makes a difference in Colombia compared to laws in other countries.

Under the new law not only are public institutions subject to providing information, but so too are private entities that provide public services. This includes political parties. This broader scope will help citizens to have the full picture of what is happening in the country.

One of the very hot issues in debates about the law was the desire by some sectors to include exceptions to the kind of information they should provide. The approved law explicitly states that even if there are exceptions to the law (public security, personal data protection, etc.) those entities holding the information cannot refuse from the outset to provide it, and if they do refuse to provide it, they must explain why. This will hopefully mean that exceptions are rare and scrutiny more realistic. Furthermore, citizens won’t need to justify why they are requesting information when addressing a public entity.

Civil society plays a central role in the process

Colombian civil society organisations have played a key role from the design to the promotion of the law. Five years of hard work of the More Information, More Rights Alliance (Alianza Más Información Más Derechos) have been fruitful. During these years, the members of the Alliance have worked closely together and collaborated extensively with members of Congress, the executive, international cooperation agencies and those public institutions directly responsible for the implementation of the law. Transparencia por Colombia, our chapter in the country, has been part of the Alliance since the beginning.

And now?

Six months after its signing, national-level Colombian institutions will be obliged to provide information under the provisions of the new law, while regional- and local-level entities will have six additional months to get ready. But this is only the very first step for the law to make a difference. Civil society organisations and public institutions need to continue working together to assure that access to information is not only nice in theory, but good in practice.

Those responsible for furnishing information need to know their obligations and need to be trained on how to provide the information. A good start will be for public institutions to proactively disseminate information and not wait for people to ask for it, as requested by the new law. Information should be easily accessible and understandable by citizens in order to help them have oversight of public policies and institutions.  At the same time, citizens and civil society organisations need to identify key areas where increased available information is urgently required and use this law as a new approach to help improve trust between citizens and public entities.

For a detail timeline on the process, click here

Find out more here

Carousel image: Creative Commons, Flickr /Adriana

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