Former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who while in office backed a precedent-setting law in support of the public’s right to government information, recently learned the hard way that the offspring of democracy can be unruly.
Last month, the Mexican political magazine Emeequis used the very freedom of information law that Fox championed to write stories alleging that, while in office, he used public funds to conduct political polling to test support for a presidential run by his wife.
This turn of events is hardly thanks for helping to enact what has been touted as landmark legislation altering the relationship between the Mexican government and its people. But, of course, proponents of government transparency would argue that such uses of the freedom of information law are precisely the point. They say that the public has the right to know how the government uses its money regardless of how that may affect a politician’s fortunes.
The Mexico office of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development Program has been active since 2004 in funding organizations that promote governmental accountability and transparency, of which the freedom of information law is perhaps the most important example.
Last month, in what is widely viewed as the most important constitutional reform since the 1996 electoral changes that ushered in democracy, state legislatures ratified a constitutional amendment that guarantees the public’s right to information at all levels of government. In the months before, more than a dozen Foundation grantees and others who work with freedom of information issues gathered at a regular “transparency breakfast” that the Foundation hosts and discussed the minimum standards they’d like to see in the proposed amendment. Much of their work ultimately was incorporated into the final version.
If signed by the president as expected, the amendment promises fundamental change to the relationship between Mexican citizens and their government, for the first time giving them the potential power to see that tax dollars are spent as promised, and that laws and regulations are being observed.
“This was a great example of our ability to bring folks together and create a consensus,” C. R. Hibbs, program officer and managing director for Hewlett’s Mexico City office, says of the work of the grantees in shaping the amendment. “In this case, a lot of the substantive proposals they made were adopted.”
To date, the Mexican experience with freedom of information laws has been happier than most other countries in the region. At the start of the new century, a wave of interest in such laws swept Latin America, with ten nations embracing measures similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. But habits of secrecy formed in former dictatorships have proved hard to change, and hopes of a great blossoming of citizen involvement and a strengthening of democracies across the continent have withered as many of the laws were weakened or abandoned. (In contrast, at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held in March to explore ways to revitalize America’s own forty-year-old freedom of information law, Mexico’s version was held up as a model.)
Since the Global Development Program started its work on governmental transparency in Mexico, it has made more than $9.5 million in grants to twenty different organizations working on various aspects of the issue. These grantees work on access to information as it relates to everything from migration and the environment to reproductive health and analysis of government budgets. Still others work on promoting use of the information law itself.
One such organization, the Center for Economic Teaching and Research (known by its acronym in Spanish, CIDE), which works on issues related to public policy, economics and the law, will use a new Hewlett grant to work with a broad set of stakeholders to help states comply with the new constitutional reform. Another, Fundar, an interdisciplinary institution dedicated to furthering democracy and citizen participation, does wide-ranging work on issues related to governmental transparency: everything from evaluating government responses to information requests and the subsequent appeals process if a request is denied, to training other organizations to analyze government budgets once information is released.
Fundar also has created an index that rates the individual states on each one’s willingness to release budget information. Program Officer Hibbs said that, over time, the strengthening of access to information in the states will prove crucial.
“The original law was strictly federal,” she says. “But since 1996 a lot of the Mexican federal budget is decentralized to the states. If you’re interested in tracking the money, the state is where the bulk of the money ends up, and the reality has been that the state freedom of information laws have been very uneven. The constitutional reform, if well implemented, will provide new tools to access the budgets of state and local governments. ”
Of course, the pursuit of governmental information is not an end itself. The goal is for access to the information to improve the lives of Mexicans across the economic and political spectrum by reducing corruption, improving the delivery of services and, ultimately, giving citizens a sense of ownership of their government.
“If government is going to work for people on the ground, then services and programs need to reach them, and the money needs to go where it’s targeted,” says Hibbs. “If you can follow the money, it is more difficult for there to be misuse or for it to be used in ways that weren’t intended.”
“We’ve supported the training of journalists to use the access to information laws to strengthen their investigative reporting,” says Guadalupe Mendoza, a program officer for Global Development based in Mexico. “It makes them better able to play an oversight role and more receptive to the work of civil society groups that also are working as government watchdogs.”
Mendoza explains, “The information that watchdogs uncover enables people to go back to a congressional budget committee, for example, and say, ‘Look, this money that you allocated for AIDS wasn’t even allocated to hospitals that treat HIV/AIDS patients.’ In Mexico, this kind of citizen-led budget tracking has resulted in real changes that improve people’s lives.”
“Access to information as a right is a pretty abstract concept,” Hibbs adds. “So we have a grantee that has a pilot project through which it works with poor communities to teach them how to use their rights under the law. Like finding out who owns water rights in their community.”
Issa Luna Pla, executive director of the International Center for Transparency and Access to Information Studies, a non-governmental organization and Foundation grant recipient based in Mexico City, tells the story of a federal college scholarship program that supports study abroad. A large number of applicants who had been told they had failed the qualifying exam used the information law to discover that the government agency administering the program barely kept records. “It made the whole system more accountable,” Pla says. “And it forced them to begin to keep accurate records.”
There are many such examples. Since 2003, there have been more than 175,000 information requests to the executive branch of the federal government, according to the Federal Institute for Access to Information, the government agency that functions as an ombudsman and reviews requests. Statistics are not available for the number of requests to the states, but they remain far fewer, says Pla.
In addition to journalists, she says, among the biggest users of the information laws to date are academics in search of government statistics to pursue research. They’re followed by non-governmental organizations seeking information on everything from the environment to health care, and then businesses pursuing information to learn how they can compete for government contracts.
But for people like Pla, most of the work remains ahead.
“People need to understand what the concept of transparency really means,” she says. “The potential is for the poorest people in the country to use this law and make requests. Understanding this will change the whole concept of the government. Right now, the government still thinks the information belongs to it. We will need more than this law. We need a whole culture of transparency.”