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Thawing Relations Between Transparency Activists and Government in Russia Yield Results

BY David Eaves | Monday, December 17 2012

I recently had a chance to sit down with Ivan Pavlov, the head of Freedom of Information Foundation in Russia (FIFR). As many readers can imagine, Russia is not the easiest place to be a freedom of information advocate. Headlines about Russia are dominated by protests against rigged presidential elections and the controversy surrounding the rock band Pussy Riot whose members were given harsh jail terms after a protest concert. The environment can indeed be exceedingly hostile to a government transparency campaign. This year the Russian government adopted a law that essentially equates any foreign funding of non-profits to espionage, and for FIFR, this had real consequences. The loss of international funders forced it to reduce its staff from 50 to 20.

Interestingly, however, the Russian transparency environment is not without both opportunities and innovations. Legally, there are requirements for government transparency encoded in Russian law — they are however infrequently adhered to. But this does give advocates some legal ground to stand on. And politically, there is opportunity as well. The government is talking more and more about fighting corruption, creating room for both advocates and government officials to talk about how transparency could play a role in addressing this issue.

Given the overall climate however one would think that relationships between transparency advocates and the government would be openly hostile. What's interesting is that, while there are clearly points of strong disagreement, there is some innovative and collaborative work going on.

Pavlov shared with me how a shift to a focus on engagement between FIFR and some Russian ministries is yielding some positive results.

Previously FIFR's approach to assessing transparency was relatively traditional: They would commission a study of how much information various Russian ministries were sharing, generally by researching their website, rating the ministries' performance against a standardized schema, and then making some draft recommendations. This work would then get published in a report available to the public and sent to various ministries. Sometimes the reports would be read and occasionally some of the recommendations were adopted.

More recently, however, FIFR has taken a new approach. While the research and report phase looks the same, now FIFR shares a preliminary pre-publication version of the report with the ministries being assessed. Government officials are invited to comment on the results, find discrepancies and engage the experts. Sometimes the government can demonstrate the report is inaccurate, improving its quality. More interestingly, the government is given a period of time to adopt the preliminary recommendations and consequently, improve its score. After this window closes, an official report is published with the governments' feedback and adopted changes taken into account.

I can imagine that this more iterative process would strike some transparency advocates as too collaborative. But for those of us interested in outcomes as opposed to just advocacy, the results are interesting. In the new model many more ministries have been keen to work with FIFR to improve their rating. As a result the average rating has gone from a rating of 20 (on a scale of 100) from last year to a rating 27. These scores may still be low, but it does reflect a dramatic improvement. More interestingly, because the processes encourages ministries to work with FIFR it has helped identify a great deal more government allies — officials within various ministries who want to be more transparent — who are interested in working with FIFR. Identifying and cultivating a pool of public servants interested in transparency is, in and of itself, an enormous win as it yields internal stakeholders who will try to drive change and, who can help you identify and cultivate still more allies.

This is also not to say that the approach is without risks. On the one side, the methodology requires discipline, the desire of government to shift the goalposts — to cause an organization to soften its criteria — is probably ever present. More dangerous is the risk that a repressive government might coerce the organization, or its employees, to apply the rules in a way that are overly favourable but appear legitimate. One way to mitigate against these dangers is to publish the preliminary results publicly so that other civil society actors and international observers can see if the ratings or suggestions have been altered in problematic ways.

There is, obviously, a great deal of work to be done in Russia but often it is interesting to see the tactics and approaches adopted in more "hostile" environments as these are sometimes the places where practitioners and advocates are forced to be the most innovative. FIFR's approach may not work everywhere, but it is something that advocates elsewhere can at least contemplate as the evaluate their effectiveness.