Building Transparency in Practice: Mexico in Comparative Perspective
In 2002, the Mexican Congress passed the country's first information access law to provide citizens access to government documents on request. This law also created an agency, the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) to oversee issues related to access. Several state governments have followed suit by creating their own access to information laws. This process of granting access to information has been closely watched both in Mexico and around the world. In this seminar, supported by the Global Development Program of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, state and federal officials involved in this process and international experts on transparency and governance exchanged points of view on the Mexican experience in the light of other processes around the world.
The first panel addressed Mexican experiences in transparency and access to information at both the federal and state level. Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive opened the panel by noting the importance of the new transparency law and similar laws at the state level. Before "information was bought, whispered, leaked, but not accessible." Now information can be obtained legally through clear institutional channels. However, she also argued that there were significant challenges ahead to institute fully the right to access to information.
Luis Silva of the Ministry of Public Administration explained that despite the continuing levels of corruption in Mexico, transparency issues are gaining importance within the federal government. He noted the work of the Inter-Ministerial Commission on Transparency in getting agencies to implement the necessary procedures to ensure compliance with the law. He also noted that his Ministry had pursued other measures designed to ensure transparency in government purchases and contracts and implement the civil service law. Maria Pérez Cepeda of the Queretaro Commission on Government Information observed that 23 Mexican states have already passed access to information legislation and 17 states have institutions to oversee these laws. She emphasized the need to create a culture which encourages citizens to exercise the right to access information. Hugo Martinez McNaught described the Federal Institute for Access to Information's (IFAI) main tasks since its inception. He argued that despite some high-profile success stories, such as giving citizens access to personal medical files; savings and loan records; the files on "Pemexgate"; and information on political repression and assassinations in the 1970's, there continues to be a culture of resistance within the public administration. Challenges remain in preserving documents and ensuring compliance with rulings of the transparency commission. Eduardo Ibarrola conveyed the greetings of the Mexican Embassy and highlighted the transparency law as one of the major accomplishments of the Mexican government over the past few years.
Daniel Kaufman of the World Bank Institute noted that governance can be measured, but that we still lack good measures for transparency. However, access to information laws alone are not sufficient to ensure good governance, which is in turn related to both economic competitiveness and democracy. These laws need to be instituted in the context of a comprehensive strategy to fight corruption, promote fiscal transparency, and ensure freedom of the press. Mexico has made significant strides at the national level, but still lags behind at the state level, and as a whole has not advanced as far as some other countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe. He laid out several challenges for the future, including the need for a law on archives, an anticorruption strategy, and laws that extend transparency beyond the executive branch and even address corporate governance.
Richard Bissell of the National Science Foundation argued that freedom of information laws need to be tied to issues that people care about in order to be effective. Since people often feel victimized by public institutions, it transparency laws can serve as tools for empowerment around concrete needs. He argued that information needs to be timely, in order to enable citizens to influence decision-making, and it needs to be accessible to all, including those who speak languages other than the national language. Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive noted that the Mexican access to information law had built on the best practices around the world and was now giving an example to the world. However, he noted that the top-down nature of the reform meant that it was especially important to build constituencies that support it and ensure its permanence over time. He noted that in the United States, the support coalition for the Freedom of Information Act includes veterans, senior citizens, businesses (especially those subject to regulation and government contractors), and research institutions. He also noted that Mexico needed to develop an archive law to ensure that government documents were preserved.
Jonathan Fox of the Wilson Center highlighted second-generation challenges that Mexico needed to address to increase the impact of the access to information law. He noted that transparency may be either opaque or clear. The former allows only access to documents, while the second includes transparency in what public institutions do as well as the documents they produce. He also argued that transparency does not automatically lead to accountability. There are significant information costs associated with access to information. It is important to have organizations that can get information by using transparency laws and present it to citizens in a way they can understand and use. Moreover, revealing information may not be enough; indeed accountability may require not only access to information but also organizations that can hold public officials accountable for their actions once information has been revealed.