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Mission to Mars or Why is it so Impossible to Open Parliaments?

Janet Oropeza Eng

For decades, space agencies have undertaken missions and extensive research to explore Mars’ conditions, so that one day we can achieve the impossible: sending humans to Mars. Back in our own planet, the Earth, practitioners around the world are trying to achieve what seems like another impossible mission: opening parliaments. However, unlike the case of Mars, here we already know what conditions parliaments must meet to be transparent, accountable and open. If the recipe is already there, political will seems like the major barrier.

But why is it important to have Open Parliaments in the first place? In democratic regimes, legislators are elected by citizens and, therefore, have the mandate to draft laws that benefit them. Also, international conventions[1] and most constitutions recognize citizens’ right to participate in public decisions, such as the law-making process, either to enrich or express concerns about the proposed bills. In practice, this means that parliaments must create mechanisms to enable citizen participation. Finally, Open Parliaments are needed to increase citizens’ trust in the legislative, which in many countries is low. For example, the Latinobarometer, an opinion survey conducted in 18 Latin American countries, shows that in 2016, 75% of the population -yes, seventy-five- mistrusted the Congress.

In this context, the best way for legislators to regain citizens’ trust is by being transparent and accountable, disseminating accessible and timely information about their work, and by creating and nurturing participation channels -by which people can express their needs and concerns or make proposals about the bills or other parliamentary activities. As easy and simple as this sounds, parliaments in many countries and regions are still “black boxes”[2] and citizens have little or no information about their practices and work. Take Latin America again as an example: the Latin American Transparency Legislative Index of 2016[3] reveals that 9 out of 13 Latin American Congresses failed to meet minimum standards of transparency and access to information, as they got less than 60 points in a scale from 0 to 100.

In Mexico, the situation is no different. In the abovementioned Index, the Mexican Congress failed as it obtained a score of 54 (in a scale from 0 to 100). Also, in 2016, citizen mistrust in the legislative was as high as 65%.[4] With the aim of enhancing openness in the legislative in Mexico, our organization, Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research, launched SPAM (Oversight of Open Parliaments in Mexico). SPAM is an interactive tool -currently in its beta version- that allows civil society organizations, networks or any person to assess how open the Mexican parliament has been during a bill discussion, either at the local or national level. SPAM evaluates, through 39 questions, if the legislative is meeting standards in four areas of Open Parliaments: 1) transparency and access to information; 2) citizen participation; 3) accountability; and 4) strategic use of information and communication technologies. To create SPAM, we drew on our experience working for over a decade with the Mexican Congress as well as on the ‘Open Parliament Assessment’ we undertook previously along with other organizations.

In July 2017, we had the chance to test SPAM for the first time, as the 32 Mexican local congresses had to approve anticorruption laws.  We contacted 14 civil society or business organizations in 13 states that participated or monitored the anticorruption bills discussion. We asked them to use SPAM to assess if these processes were meeting the principles of Open Parliament. Unfortunately, the findings confirmed that one third of the Mexican local congresses are still “black boxes”.[5] Most of these legislative bodies did not meet basic standards of transparency and accountability. For example, 7 out of 13 congresses did not publish the bills discussed and, even when these were available, these did not explain in a simple and sound manner why legislators chose one proposal over another. Another worrisome result in terms of accountability is that 11 of 13 legislative committees did not publish the minutes of their meetings, so citizens could not know if they did meet and, if so, what was discussed there. In terms of citizen participation, the result was ambivalent: 8 out of 13 congresses did organize public fora and audiences to discuss the bills, however, given the accountability issues already mentioned, citizens do not know if their inputs were included or not in the approved laws and, if so, how.

Our experience shows that having Open Parliaments, at least in Mexico, is still as impossible as the mission to Mars. However, we need to keep generating evidence of how congresses are working and what practices must be transformed for them to be accountable, transparent and open to citizen participation. If not, the gap between representatives and citizens will keep widening and some of the most pressing issues our societies face (inequality, violence, impunity, corruption, poverty, etc.) will not necessarily be tackled through the laws.

 


 

[1] For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its article 25 recognizes that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

[2] The congresses are black boxes since citizens can only look at the inputs (or demands) and final outputs (laws) without knowing what actions or elements legislators considered and undertook during the legislative process. David Easton, a political scientist, used the term “black box” in 1965.

[3] This Index measures the existence and depth of transparency and citizen participation policies within Congresses in Latin America. The Index measures four areas of the Legislative: legal framework, work, budget and public management, and participation, accountability and citizen unit. The Index goes from 0 to 100 where 100 is a Congress that meets all the criteria considered in the Index.

[4] This percentage was obtained from Latinobarometer.

[5] The results of SPAM for the anticorruption laws processes can be found here.

 

About the Author

Janet Oropeza Eng

Janet Oropeza Eng is Researcher within the Accountability and Fight Against Corruption Area of Fundar, Center for Analysis and Research. She holds a MA in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, Canada. Her areas of interest are citizen participation, accountability and human rights.
                   

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