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Hamburg’s New Transparency Law – Lessons for Activists

BY David Eaves | Friday, June 29 2012

Background

Two weeks ago, the State Government of Hamburg passed a new law that required all government information not impacted by privacy issues to be posted online.

The law is part of a next generation of access to information laws — like the one passed in Brazil — that requires government information to be disclosed and made available online in a machine readable format. As Christian Humborg, one of the key activists behind the law, said: “An Adobe PDF document is no longer sufficient.”

In theory, all information should end up online. But to be safe, the law stipulates certain types of information that must be posted. Some of the information called out explicitly includes contracts and procurement data; legal opinions; parliamentary decisions and votes; administrative plans; planning data; official statistics and reports; and government subsidies. Interestingly, the law also requires access to all company data from corporations in which the city owns a stake. This prevents politicians and administrators from evading transparency rules by setting up private partnerships which, in some European cities like Vienna, Austria, has allowed transit companies to stop sharing information as innocuous as transit schedule data.

Lessons for Activists

In an interview with Christian Humborg — the managing director of Transparency International and a leading activist behind the new law — I asked him what activists around the world could learn from victory for Hamburg's transparency advocates. What follows is a summary of our conversation, which broke down into three main pieces:

1. Find a concrete situation around which to build your campaign.

In Germany often these can center around public services that are outsourced to private companies, such as water or transport. In Hamburg, the state had agreed to build a new opera house. Sadly, the cost overruns were massive and the news was filled with fights between the government and the contractor about which group was responsible for the delays and costs overruns. With public anger over the entire situation rising it was a perfect opportunity to appeal to a wide audience over improved transparency and access to government contracts.

Interestingly, Berlin serves as a great example where such an opportunity was missed. There the water utility was privatized, but because the process was opaque and the outcome somewhat controversial, citizens initiated a referendum to make the contract and the documents surrounding the negotiation accessible to the public. The referendum was passed with 98 percent of voters in favor. But since the referendum was limited to this one contract, activists lost an opportunity for wider, structural reform.

2. Understand the political levers at your disposal

In Hamburg, as in some states in the U.S., if enough citizens get together they can demand a referendum on an issue. This can put pressure on politicians to move an issue forward since, if they are involved, they can at least help shape the legislation. However, if it goes to a referendum, not only do they look unresponsive but they cannot influence the process. The organizers used these political levers to great effect, essentially securing enough support that they could go to a referendum but working with the political parties to ensure the law passed more quickly.

3. Engage the Statesmen and Experts

While the initial draft of the new access to information law was hosted on a wiki, the pen ultimately shifted to a former German supreme court judge who drafted the text. This proved invaluable, partly because the respect for the judge gave the process still greater weight with many voters and politicians. More practically, the judge was able to take the interests and concerns outlined in the wiki and translate them into an effective legal document.

The Growing Influence of the Pirate Party

There was, of course, a shadow looming over the entire process: the rise of the Pirate Party. All four local political parties, including both governing and opposition parties, voted in favour of the transparency law. Christian attributes this, in part, to the success of the Pirate Party in recent German elections. With transparency being a core part of their platform, other political parties are also eager to shore up their credentials in this space.

This is a fantastic example of how powerful the Pirate Party has become in Germany. It’s also a great case study in how a group can succeed in driving its agenda into government without being in power.

What’s next

For Christian and his fellow activists, the Hamburg transparency law provides one additional benefit. It sets a new benchmark in Germany for what governments should be doing around access to information. Their hope is that this will make it easier for citizens in other states to advocate for change. Between this and the Pirate Party, Germany is going to be an interesting place for transparency activists to watch over the coming years.

Personal Democracy Media is thankful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.