The current Euro Crisis has unveiled many political and institutional deficiencies in Spain. Among them, the lack of transparency and free access to public information is one of the most serious. In modern democracies public scrutiny is a fundamental element for good governance. Transparency empowers the citizenship and civil-society to keep the government in check. Many of the problems that have contributed to the built-up of the crisis in Spain (and other European countries), such as opacity in public procurement, absence of reliable policy evaluations, mismanagement of public expenditure and corruption, have been enabled and aggravated by the lack of transparency. Numerous voices within the Spanish polity, media and civil society are now criticising the passivity of the Spanish governments to redress this situation. They are claiming the pressing need for a new much more ambitious legal framework of access to public information. The Euro Crisis is certainly creating a window of opportunity for reforms such as this one and Rajoy’s government seems to be increasingly willing to implement it. Despite the many obstacles and mixed signals from the government there is still hope. The new law for transparency could become the first step into a real process of institutional regeneration in Spain.
The long siesta of transparency
Transparency has been in the agenda for a long time in Spain, albeit in a ‘dormant’ mode. The strong legacy of the Francoist Law of Official Secrets enacted in 1968 (and only superficially amended in 1978) has decisively contributed to a comparatively very opaque public administration. To redress this situation, in 2004 Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, promised a transparency law that would enable citizens to request information from public authorities fostering democratic control and accountability. However after much foot-dragging, in 2011 the government announced that the Transparency Law was not a priority anymore for the government. Mr Rodríguez Zapatero‘s party lost the election and the law was never passed.
The failure to enact an access to information law has left Spain in uncomfortable situation. Spain has the dubious honour of being among the three countries (with Luxembourg and Cyprus) not having an access to information regulation in the European Union. Furthermore in the Ibero-American context, while Spain was once considered an example to follow, now it has been surpassed by countries such as Mexico, Chile or Uruguay. Transparency activists and civil liberties advocates, such as those working in the Pro-Access Coalition, have repeatedly denounced the deficiencies of the initial drafts of the transparency law and the backwards situation of Spain evidenced by the international transparency studies such as those of Access Info, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and Transparency International.
The current situation is in many ways regrettable, as the experience website www.tuderechoasaber.es shows. The website allows Spanish citizens to ask questions to public authorities and the rate of reply is very low. Some of the replies range from patronizing citizens to almost insult them. In a recent development David Cabo the director of the NGO Civio, requested the public expenditure from the Spanish Parliament, and after ignoring his request, the Parilament formally denied the information. The information was finally leaked but in any case transparency, which is a fundamental premise of liberal democracy, was ultimately undermined.
In this context, the new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government recently joined the Open Government Partnership, an alliance that seeks to improve participation, collaboration and transparency among country members. In this context the Spanish government promised a new transparency law which would certainly add respectability to his membership. This new law could pave the way for other initiatives much needed to regain the public’s trust. Nonetheless once more the path seems full of obstacles to test the real government’s determination to improve transparency.
Read the full Blog post here.