Category Archives: Watchdogs/Monitoring

Ask the EU

One thing that’s great in the community of e-democracy activists is their openness to sharing their innovations. AsktheEU.org is the result of such willingness to share among citizens in Spain and Britain. It’s a platform for information requests that is the work of a human rights organisation based in Madrid, Access Info Europe, which was created borrowing the idea from mySociety’s British website WhatDoTheyKnow.com. The website provides an efficient way for EU citizens and residents to make information requests from the EU itself. It’s a much needed tool to make the EU more accessible and recent updates to the website have taken the project one step closer to that goal.

In its essence the website facilitates public information requests whereby citizens and residents can exercise their right to ask for documents from EU institutions. This right was established by the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Article 15) and by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union(Article 42), and what’s important to note – also non-citizens and non-residents can make information requests but they do not have the right to appeal to courts (yet they can appeal to the EU Ombudsman and challenge initial turndowns). The website helps with locating the right EU institutions for your information request and has done the tricky legal work for you as well – all requests automatically include the necessary phrases so that the requests are processed without issue.

askeu

The recently added features make it easier for civil society to bring attention to their information requests – they can create campaign pages and include a widget on their own website, which can be used to declare interest in a particular request. Just the same, it’s possible to follow requests in campaign pages as can be seen below with a request on contacts with industry lobbies during EU-US trade negotiations (you can also have a look at their short video explaining how to use the main site as well as these new features).

AsktheEU.org is well equipped to create a more informed European public – it stores information requests publicly, helps to avoid repeating the same questions, as well as provides a way how to draw attention to information requests with wider public significance. What remains is for the site to become the central channel through which information requests are made, only then can a truly useful database be created.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

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Planning alerts

Privately owned, yet publicly visible, buildings that are the labours of love for the owners but turn out to be the source of headaches for the neighbourhood. Some planned public buildings or buildings in historically noteworthy locations may manage to receive the attention of media. Just the same depending on where you live, neighbours may be required or expected to notify those  living nearby. Still we are faced with those private creations whose construction we notice too late and whose particular form or function it may have been good to discuss with local residents beforehand.

In comes PlanningAlerts, a website created by the Open Australia Foundation, which gathers together all planning permission applications and provides an email notification service for local residents. Most of the information is gathered automatically from the websites of local authorities, ‘scraped’ as they call it, while local authorities themselves are encouraged to share their data in an accessible format. Once a new planning application is submitted nearby, you get to know about it straight away.

The website also offers the option to browse its database in your own time. Below is one example of the kind of information it offers. For each council it is possible to monitor the rate of planning applications as well as browse the most recent applications.

planning-alerts-photo

Just the same, one can search for planning applications nearby using a postcode or the current location. Those who are conscious of what kind of architectural direction their city is taking would probably appreciate the ability to browse through any new plans for areas of their interest.

The initiative is intended to give the opportunity to community members to raise concerns about planned construction works. As mentioned by an official at the Mosman Council (AU), officials are not always able to reach their constituents even when they would like to:

Councils spend a lot of time putting ads in the paper, signs on sites and writing to people but it is not always easy to identify the community of interest for a particular development proposal or approval. I see Planning Alerts as a supplement to the statutory notification we undertake and provides us with greater reach as a result. (John Carmichael, planningalerts.org)

If the resident wishes to raise an objection to a specific building it is possible to leave comments directly below each planning application. The comments section aspires to act as the focal point for online discussions surrounding the same construction plans. The developers have also integrated Twitter with tweets mentioning the relevant PlanningAlerts link being automatically displayed next to the application. Unfortunately a quick browse through the latest applications does not find any integrated tweets – to a large degree it could be due to the fact that most planning applications are routine and do not cause concern for locals.

What happens to the comments depends on the council and how willing it has been to collaborate with the site. Commenters under applications for the City of Brisbane are redirected to an official online submission form, while any comments for Melbourne City Council planning applications are sent directly to the council. For other councils, where it’s likely that no partnership has been established, the comments remain online under the planning applications.

To somewhat discourage angry neighbours without justifiable grounds for objections, the site requires to submit your address any time you comment, also this way any discussion emanating from the website is more likely to be taken seriously by the council. Just the same, commenters need to disclose any donations to councillors in the relevant jurisdiction, which is something that is required by Australian law but a good practice to borrow for anywhere else as well.

The website is inspired by planningalerts.com, a UK-based project that is currently closed down and in the process of being integrated into a new website – openlylocal.com. What is great about their story of collaboration is that their open source codebase has inspired new initiatives, such as the local one in Hampshire, UK. For a group of enthusiasts willing to create such a service in their home town (perhaps the conscious architects vary of what is being built in their city?) a big part of the initial work is already done.

[Marta]


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

Open Contracting Partnership

Government purchases of goods and services – a huge industry estimated to be worth ‘between 13% and 20% of GDP on average worldwide’ (OECD) made with public funding for the public good. Yet it remains as one of the more opaque state operations.

Rooted in the commitment to opening up governments the Open Contracting Partnership targets government procurement procedures and aims to reduce corruption as well as inefficiency. In its essence open contracting refers to practices that increase the disclosure of information and promote public involvement in procurement procedures. In practice this can translate into a publicly available online database for contracts, past and present, and consultations with local representatives or civil society groups throughout the contracting process.

The Open Contracting Partnershipinits essence is an advocacy and support group for governments and industry actors. Based on the argument that government contracts are indeed purchases by the public and for the public, the Partnership has set the standard in terms of public rights to information and involvement in government contracting. Besides their advocacy work, the Open Contracting Partnership also provides resources, including their latest offering – the Open Contracting Data Standard that was developed together with the World Bank.

open contracting

Sought-after outcomes

While the seemingly obvious target of the open contracting movement is corruption, it can deliver more efficient public competitions and better quality outcomes.[1] Having publicly accessible databases can enable bureaucrats to borrow good practices in contract design from other states as well as make the bidding process smarter – companies with access to previous contracts can make better decisions when deciding whether to take part in a competition or not. Just the same oversight can alleviate poor execution of services or delivery of goods – if civil society groups and the media can raise the alarm when known costs are overrun or resulting services do not follow specifications, the possibility exists to bring the responsible actors to account.

What is especially noteworthy about the Partnership is its initial focus on the extractives sector. While corruption is debilitating for any democracy, fledgling democracies can see their progress reversed with the discovery of valuable natural resources. What is sometimes called the ‘resource curse’ is not only an economic ailment but a disease of the political system as well. Rents from natural resources can compromise the political system by creating the opportunity for the reigning leaders to use revenue to retain power (through outright vote-buying or by backing favourable public sector officials).[2]

Public contracts are one of the remedies suggested by such experts in the fields of development and natural resource management as Paul Collier (other necessary ingredients being an active civil society and vigorous media). Such interventions cut directly through the malicious relationship between highly valuable natural resources and the performance of a political system by cutting off the private pay-offs of resource extraction.

Noteworthy practices

One of the more comprehensive electronic databases for public contracts can be found in Colombia, namely its Electronic Public Contracting System or SECOP (see “Publish What You Buy”). What makes SECOP stand apart from other systems is the disclosure of all the relevant information pertaining to any particular contract (except for discrepancies that arise when researchers have previously tried to access contracts relating to the ‘Carousel of Contracting’ scandal in Bogotá). A typical contract entry will include the personal information of officials involved in the project, their salaries, tax payments, company fees, as well as any costs of services or materials.

An example of a successful intervention closer to home comes from Lithuania where their branch of Transparency International won the Promoting Transparent Contract Award in 2012. After realising how widespread undisclosed public procurement actually was, Transparency International Lithuania launched an investigation of unannounced tenders. Following their initiative legislation was amended to limit the use of such tenders, with clear requirements to publish the relevant justification whenever an undisclosed tender is used, for example in cases with formidable time constraints or sensitive content.

All in all, it is very likely that states will often already be publishing some information online regarding the main details of public purchases. Yet to reduce corruption in public contracting and to achieve better quality outcomes, states need to go one step further by implementing an open process of contracting instead of publishing retrospective reports that do not offer enough information to allow sufficient scrutiny by the public.

[Marta]

[1] Charles Kenny. 2012. “Publish What You Buy: The Case for Routine Publication of Government Contracts.” CGD Policy Paper 011. Washington DC: Center for Global Development. http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1426431 [Accessed 10/11/2014]

[2] Paul Collier, “The Political Economy of Natural Resources,” Social Research 77, no. 4 (2010): 1114.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

Global PMO network: inspiring parliaments to change!

It’s 12 noon in Mexico, 6PM in Morocco, and 8PM in Latvia. Iveta Kazoka, policy analyst at Latvian Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS conducts an interview via Skype with two of the people who know the most about the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, which is supported by more than 115 organizations in 73 countries.  Melissa Ortiz Massó is a researcher at parliamentary monitoring organization Fundar at Mexico City and also a member of Latin American Network for Parliamentary Transparency. Andrew Mandelbaum is a senior program officer at the National Democratic Institute. He works on its governance team and helps to coordinate the parliamentary monitoring work. 

 

Let’s start with a very easy question: what is a Parliamentary Monitoring Organization?

[silence]

Andrew: that’s easy?

Isn’t it?

[Everyone laughs]

Andrew: OK, let’s start from the beginning! Sometime in 2007 international parliamentary associations started to develop standards for what being a democratic parliament means. The National Democratic Institute (NDI), where I work, was involved in those attempts. At the same time, there were also efforts, by the likes of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to create a framework for self-evaluating the level of democracy in various parliaments.  So this movement towards understanding what makes a democratic parliament produced a new question: namely, how does civil society monitor parliaments and their commitments to the values of democracy?

I conducted research on behalf of NDI and the World Bank Institute to survey civil society organizations and to write a report on parliamentary monitoring. Who is doing this kind of work? Are they aware of international standards?  To our surprise, we found tons of monitoring organizations – around 190 – during the research!

Yes, the term is a „parliamentary monitoring organization”, but the definition is more inclusive than that. It refers to organizations that are involved in monitoring and evaluating parliaments, helping to engage citizens in the legislative process, and support the democratic strengthening of parliaments.

So they shouldn’t necessarily have an electronic presence – for example, a monitoring website – to count as PMOs?

Andrew: That’s right! While many of the best known PMOs are using “parliamentary informatics” to help citizens make sense of parliamentary information and engage citizens in parliamentary work, there are lots of organizations around the world that don’t use these new technologies. Around 40% of the respondents to the survey we conducted were either using technologies or developing them. But that means that 60% were not!

Melissa: For example, here in Mexico we’ve being monitoring parliament for 12 years, but we’ve been using new technologies only for the last 2 years. Those technologies were not accessible – not just for us, but also for other people!  Just 33% of population has access to internet in my country.

Let’s come back to last year when you brought various PMO’s together in Washington to sign a declaration on parliamentary openness – were those PMO’s aware about the existence and work of each other?

Andrew: Around May 2012, NDI, the Sunlight Foundation and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency (LALT Network) hosted a conference bringing together PMOs from 38 countries. Most PMO’s tended to be focused on their own parliaments. Aside from the Latin American network and a couple meetings that brought together some parliamentary monitoring tech developers, they were on their own. Many were not aware of the good practices and innovations taking part all over the world.

Melissa: For me Washington was a happy surprise.  I was aware about the organizations in my region, but then it turned out that there are more than 5 crazy people around the world! I’ve been doing parliamentary monitoring for 8 years, so it was interesting and surprising to know that there are so many people involved in such kind of work all over the world.

At that point did you already have a draft declaration prepared?

Andrew: We had a discussion document that the conference hosts had published on the internet prior to the conference. Everyone had an opportunity to discuss it at the event, as well as online. It was also presented at a conference in France hosted by Regards Citoyens and Science Po. The Declaration has undergone numerous changes since the discussion document was posted. It was not even originally called a „declaration”! There were over 60 organizations that provided input into the creation of what we call today the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.

Was the declaration based on experience of 1-2 model parliaments or some broader research?

Andrew: It was based on resources developed by the international parliamentary associations, such as the standards for democratic parliaments and World e-Parliament reports, parliamentary rules of procedure, as well as policies and practices of individual parliaments –  really from a tremendous number of documents that influence parliamentary openness and transparency. You can see references in the background notes – practices of more than 60 parliaments have been included.

There are 44 recommendations in the declaration. Did you consider listing them in order of priority?

Melissa: that was part of our discussions during the Washington meeting! But then we realized that all of us have different realities – for example, some countries are parliamentarian, others are presidential; some use new technologies, for other just radio and TV is important as a media –   so it would have been too difficult to tell which thing is more important than another. That’s one of the things that is amazing about this document: not just the standards themselves, but also that it has been a collaborative process! It was commented on by people who live in very different circumstances all over the world.

But are PMO’s already using the declaration in their everyday work? For example, to put pressure on parliament in order to change?

Melissa: yes! (Laughs)

It has been a great platform for me and my Congress! Now I can say to the Congress that it is not just me, but rather there is an international community that is pushing for new standards – and not just in countries like Mexico, but in countries like Germany and Finland.

When you put it like that – the members of parliament soften. It’s surprising the extent to which the members of parliament have changed their attitudes both towards us and the issue itself!

We’re working on improving the standards in Mexico right now – we’re following the declaration paragraph by paragraph to understand what needs to be changed. Probably in April we will present the results and the Action Plan on the necessary improvements to senators. And there are other good examples as well – for example, in Argentina.

So you know better what to push for and you are also taken more seriously by the parliament?

Melissa: Totally!

Andrew: There are some 40 organizations that are currently conducting advocacy using the declaration. Organizations are also forming coalitions in their countries around this declaration – it’s happening in a lot of places, for example, in Liberia, Germany, and Argentina.

And by advocacy you mean – going to the parliament, showing them declaration and pushing for change?

Andrew, Melissa: yes!

Excellent!  But have you considered comparing various parliaments according to the criteria of the declaration?

Andrew: yes, we have!  The Latin American network has been doing this for their parliaments – so it should be possible for the parliaments all over the world. A lot of parliaments are already recognizing the declaration as a normative framework, and we expect some big endorsements soon.

There could be two purposes in comparing the parliaments: one is to apply the comparative pressure. The other – we would want to aggregate the information that the local PMO’s already know about their parliaments. So that it becomes a shared global knowledge! With a database like this, the PMO’s in various countries will be able to tell their parliaments: hey, you’re not doing well in this area of declaration! But there are a multiple things you could do: these practices have worked in multiple countries, they are proven and we’re happy to help you to figure out how to implement them!

So that’s in the plans! But while you are considering comparing parliaments – maybe you’re already aware of a parliament that should be a model for everyone else?

Andrew: it’s really, really hard to say! No assessment has been completed as of yet, but even if there were, there will probably be areas to work on in every country. Sometimes even the most developed democracy might, for example, make some important draft legislation unavailable.

Melissa: everyone complains about some aspects of their parliaments! I don’t think that we are going to see a parliament that is totally open in any country, but we would be able to see some parliaments that are either improving or having really good practices in some area.

So no obvious leaders – but what about bad examples?

Andrew: plenty of those as well! But I don’t think that the value of monitoring compliance with the declaration would be in ranking parliaments. The declaration has four components: 1) creating a culture in society were openness and citizen engagement are respected and encouraged; 2) making more information available; 3) using different channels for broadcasting parliamentary information; 4) open data standards. How parliaments compare against each section will help identify shortcomings. It’s the policies and good practices gathered in relation to each of those sections that will be most useful to parliaments and local PMO’s, as it will enable them address their specific these specific shortcomings. After all, there are still some parliaments in the world were you cannot access the voting information or draft legislation.

But wouldn’t a rank be a strong advocacy tool for local PMO’s? For example, if my parliament is next to last, I could shame the parliament into changing its practice?

Melissa: We tried such approach in Latin American network, but it didn’t work. So then we did a twist – instead of emphasizing the negative side of it, we focused on the positive. For example, telling them that the Brazilian Congress is doing such and such, and it is great! Let’s try to do like Brazil! Our parliament responds to these kinds of positive incentives better than to negative ones. If we compare them to a parliament somewhere in Europe, they’ll just say that it is too far away and the situation is too different. So we’re not focusing on what we are doing wrong, but rather on what the others are doing right and that we should, too.

So what next for the network? If you look at the next year or two, what do you see?

Andrew: hopefully we will have a methodology on monitoring the compliance with declaration and for collecting policies, good parliamentary practices around the world. I also hope that in a year you’ll see information on at least 50 parliaments on openingparliament.com website, you’ll see the declaration having been translated to more languages (there are already 14!) and more engagement between PMO’s while helping each other on global advocacy. We’re already trying to do that via the OpeningParliament blog!

Melissa: I have a lot of hope in building community of practitioners who would have different approaches to the same problems. It would be great if they were sharing their new ideas on how to solve those problems!

Andrew: You know, we also hope to see more engagement with the parliamentary community. Through the Open Government Partnership, almost 60 governments are collaborating with civil society to make commitments to use technology to become more open and accountable. Parliaments are not included in that initiative, despite being the branch of government charged with representing citizens.   We hope that the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness will inspire the parliaments to be more involved – to use the new technologies and to engage citizens!

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PolitiFact – exposing lies in politics

One of the most wonderful internet projects I’ve ever seen is PolitiFact – just look at the depth of it; no wonder it is a winner of Pulitzer Prize!

FactCheck4

Its primary ambition: to remedy the false information spread by politicians. According to PolitiFact statement:

“Every day, reporters and researchers from PolitiFact and its partner news organization examine statements by members of Congress, state legislators, governors, mayors, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in American politics. We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter – True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.”

To my mind that is a truly great thing about the Truth-O-Meter – it allows more nuances in fact evaluations than just true/false. The truth, after all, should rather be imagined as a spectrum, a matter of degree. And as you can see in the screenshot above,  the nuanced evaluation does not make the evaluation unduly complicated – on the contrary, it allows more space not just for more subtle distinctions, but also humor.

Each fact gets thoroughly researched – I’ve seen many articles where sources number more than 20.  There is always the name of the person who has written that specific article. See below how a typical Truth-O-Metter looks like.

FactCheck5
Returning again to their self-description:

PolitiFact writers and editors spend considerable time researching and deliberating on our rulings. We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories. We then divide the statement into individual claims that we check separately. When possible, we go to original sources to verify the claims. We look for original government reports rather than news stories. We interview impartial experts.

The thing that I particularly like about Politifact website: it is not just the politicians whose statement gets subjected to truth-check. The team also looks at other opinion makers that influence political attitudes, such as political chain-mails (their truth record is quite atrocious!) and  pundits (see, for example, how Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is doing truth-wise)!

FactCheck3 FactCheck2

There are two more interesting parts in PolitiFact: 1) Flip-O-Meter; 2)  Pledge-O-Meter.

Flip-O-Metter has to do with a politician flipping on his/hers previous statements:

Like our Truth-O-Meter, the Flip-O-Meter begins with good journalism. When a candidate is accused of flipping, reporters and researchers examine the candidates’ statements and voting records. Have they hedged their words over time? Shifted their tone? Changed their voting patterns? Then, we rate whether the candidate has truly flipped: No Flip – No substantial change of position. The candidate has been consistent. Half Flip – A partial change of position or inconsistent statements. Full Flop – A major reversal of position; a complete flip-flop.

See in the screenshot below how two of leading US politicians have flipped on their previous statements about gay marriage or abortion: PolitiFact has the full story and analysis on those flip-flops.

FactCheck

Pledge-O-Metter is about tracking politician’s promises! See how Obameter looks like!

politfact2

So in all it an excellent public accountability tool – that allows voters and media to get a quality information on the truth and falsehood of various political statements, prevents politicians from getting away with spreading false information (that might get on their permanent record via PolitiFact!), and does all this in a considered, nuanced way that respects the complexities of social and political domain.

I only wish we had one in Latvia!

[Iveta]

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Parliamentary monitoring website deputatiuzdelnas.lv

The parliamentary monitoring web-platform deputatiuzdelnas.lv  was created by the Latvian branch of Transparency International, “Delna”, purpose of which is to fight corruption and ensure transparency on all levels of  interaction in Latvia-  in politics, business and personal encounters.  The specific  aim of the website is to supervise the parliament in fields of anti-corruption, transparency and democracy-building as well as to encourage public interest in the activities of the MPs. Just as gudrasgalvas.lv, it was initially created as a pre-election project with the purpose to warn voters about the black spots in the reputation of election candidates (the project had a thorough methodology that allowed  to screen and research all the main candidates).

The website right now contains profiles of all 100 MPs, representing five political parties. New information is added to the website on monthly basis, updating data on the income of members of the MPs, Saeima plenary sessions and committee meetings attendance as well as different issues having to do with their public character and actions. Here’s a snapshot of what the profile looks like:

deputatiuzdelnas_deputataprofils

Whats more, the website also has an archive, which means the profiles of MPs from the previous governments are accessible for viewing – and all the information that has been gathered on the scandals and other shady issues they were involved previously …  if at all! Don’t get a wrong impression on Latvian politics! 🙂

In addition, Events’ Archive section is updated regularly by publishing brief investigative articles providing details of the events that are directly or indirectly related to corruption, ethical violations, questionable behavior, as well as events that have a direct or indirect impact on anti-corruption work, public participation and transparency.

See how it looks like in the next screenshot below – here you can see the general list of topics (for example, a) important corruption scandals; b) petty scandals; c) protests; d) bank crisis and other topics of importance to Latvian society in the areas of transparency) as well as the subsection on three of the scandals associated with misuses of EU funding!

DuDskandali

The website also allows the general public to directly follow some of the legislative process (dealing with topics of transparency, anti-corruption, institution building) in a straightforward, visually appealing and comprehensible way, highlighting who has proposed it, votes on the proposal, debates and commentaries by experts in the field. Like so:

DuDlikumprojekti

Similarly, the website provides profiles of parties and most significant happenings in relation to anti-corruptionand transparency-related issues. It also “ranks” MP’s according to various criteria – for example, who are the leaders in “abstention” (voting neither for, nor against a specific proposal – which might be characterized as a bit of a cowardly way of behaving in parliament), see below:

DuDatturas

In addition, the platform also offers viewers analysis (graphic or otherwise) of the overall politicians’ participation and activism, as well as legislative proposals:

deputatiuzdelnas_aktualitates_likumprojekti

Also, viewers are welcome to comment on any entry posted and engage actively, including asking a question to a MP which activates a widget that links this webpage to communication platform gudrasgalvas.lv! It looks like this:

DuSdeputats

However, should you actually visit the website’s News section, you will find that none of the posts have any comments on them. It might seem puzzling that a website providing such detailed and comprehensive overview of the legislative process and those responsible for its smooth running, would not enjoy interest and involvement on the behalf of the general public. From what we know – it is the same regarding all of the parliamentary monitoring websites! How do you think: why is that so? In the same way as gudrasgalvas.lv – deputatiuzdelnas.lv isvisited much more often shortly prior to elections (when it publishes information on the reputation of candidates!)

Compared to other parliamentary monitoring websites that we are aware of, deputatiuzdelna.lv invests  a tremendous amount of investigative work that has to be done by researchers – for instance, the information on scandals and new, important legislative initiatives cannot be gathered just by re-using information that is already available on the website of the parliament. Delna also has published a policy paper in December 2012 asking parliament to get more data online.

This is a great project that allows MP’s to be held accountable in a way that was impossible prior to the start of Internet era!

[Indra, with some additions from Iveta]

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What do they know?

WhatDoTheyKnow is  one of the most useful crowdsourcing websites that I’m aware of! It is run and maintained as part of mySociety project.

Its main idea, according to their statement:

You choose the public authority that you would like information from, then write a brief note describing what you want to know. We then send your request to the public authority. Any response received is automatically published on the website for you and anyone else to find and read.

What is so wonderful about this website?

See the underlined parts in the screenshot below! It gives citizens the possibilities they would never have without such a website.

Image

Its basic advantage: a large number of freedom of information requests are collected there.

Why is it important?

Well, I could think about several reasons! For example, you might not need to write a freedom of information request yourself and  then wait for response …  rather you could check whether such information has not already been sent to someone else! Maybe somebody already has this information and it is available on that website. Maybe that information has been shared by such an authority you didn’t even know existed – whatdotheyknow allows to conduct a search of all FoI requests relating to an issue that you are interested in. See, for example, some of the things that are now public thanks to the website.

What else? Imagine that you are a journalist (or a researcher) and you would like to know what people are interested about when they contact some public authority! This is a wonderful library very much suited for such a purpose. According to the website, around 15% to 20% of requests to UK Central Government are made through the site.

This is a very high number indeed!

In addition to that, you may opt to follow all the new requests to a specific authority, thus in this way the crowdsourced information might help you to learn something useful in a timely manner (for instance, somebody has read somewhere about some specific information that an authority has and then makes a FoI request – if not for this request, you might have never known that such an information even existed!)

What’s more – not just the freedom of information requests themselves appear on this website, but the responses from public authorities as well!  Sometimes there are reasons why a request has been unsuccessful – you could do an analysis on this (whether the institutions apply the law in a correct manner, whether there are institutions that are more willing to withhold information as compared to others).

Such a collection of requests also allows public institutions to learn about the patterns of information people are requesting and, maybe, share the often requested information on their website on their own initiative.

So, to sum up, this is a wonderful, unique website that helps to endure citizen oversight over public authorities. It is done by crowdsourcing  FoI requests and responses, and giving citizens plenty of options to work with this information.

[Iveta]

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