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Brazil's Open-Government Shock Treatment

BY Greg Michener | Wednesday, June 27 2012

Officials in Brazil's government have had a transparency shock treatment in the past year. Photo: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz

Countries arrive at more transparency and greater freedom of information either through long training or sudden shock treatment.

The U.S. experience, with decades of incremental law and legal precedent, is synonymous with the archetypical training regime. Brazil, on the other hand, is undergoing the epitome of shock treatment. In one month, May 2012, Brazil formally launched an ambitious freedom of information law that outlines a "right to information" – replete with provisions for the release of information in open, computer-readable formats – and, at around the same time, a new open-data portal. For added shock, the Brazilian government inaugurated a second new fundamental right, the "right to historical truth." This right is embodied by the newly established Truth Commission, whose aim it is to reconcile abuses from the military dictatorship that controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. Brazil also currently occupies the co-chair of the Open Government Partnership. In short, Brazil is in the midst of a massive transparency offensive and there are positive signs that it is moving in the right direction.

With dozens of mega-infrastructure projects in the works, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics on the horizon, the time to put Brazil's house in order is now. There are important reasons why President Dilma Rousseff seems to be using transparency initiatives to do this. Brazil's political system is characterized by a high degree of rent-seeking, which partly explains why the country boasts the highest tax-to-GDP ratio in the hemisphere and elevated levels of perceived corruption. Meanwhile, with over two dozen parties in Congress, party leaders often stitch together parliamentary majorities through large payoffs and by distributing federal ministries to unreliable allies. Since President Rousseff took office, she has overseen the ouster of five ministers on account of corruption scandals, all but one from parties other than her own. This churn lends her administration greater control over the operation of ministries, which, in turn, might reduce rent-seeking and its related ills.

It is still too early to tell how well Brazil's transparency shock treatment is working. But signs are encouraging, particularly with regards to freedom of information. After a month in operation, the Federal Comptroller General reported that citizens had filed approximately 10,400 requests. Nearly 70 percent of these had already been answered, or around 7,400 requests. A further 10 percent of were rejected on legal grounds and officials reported a further seven percent as being incomprehensible – not altogether surprising in a country where the average voter has just over seven years of formal schooling. It is not clear into what category the remaining 13 percent of requests have fallen. Yet eyeballing use of Brazil’s new freedom of information law on a per capita basis, numbers compare favorably with the initial performance of Mexico in 2003 and Chile in 2009, two other Latin American countries with functional freedom of information regimes.

The most sensational aspect of the new freedom of information law has to do with the salaries of public servants. The indecently large take-home pay of some public officials has been exposed in a country where millions live near the poverty line. Shock over grossly disproportional salaries – high-rolling lower staffers taking home more than low-earning high officials – have also raised questions about a cryptic, archaic pay structure.

In short, Brazil's transparency shock treatment is shaking things up. Yet the pressing question is whether legislation will take root and transform relative opacity into openness. Along with analog freedom of information provisions, this law contains notable open-data advances that may be of considerable utility both to Brazilians and to jurisdictions still considering the substance of their own measures.

Testing out Transparency: Participatory Budgeting and Transparency Portals

This "shock treatment" is new, but the country has tested the waters of open government before. Brazilian cities pioneered the practice of "participatory budgeting," and the country was an early adopter of the web as a transparency technology.

Transparency formed part of Brazil's democratic and economic rehabilitation after years of dictatorship. An economic hangover of run-away debt at the local, state, and federal levels, hyperinflation, and high levels of corruption followed the country's euphoric transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1985. International lenders put pressure on Brazil to restrain its finances and open fiscal management up to public scrutiny. This occurred elsewhere in the region, too. But in Brazil, it kick-started a few seminal experiments with open government.

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