Wanted: A minister of transparency

It is at the very foundations of sound management and ensures the public’s faith in the government. When a government is transparent and wins public trust, it acts more effectively and more efficiently.

By ALONA VINOGRAD
May 20, 2019 21:57
4 minute read.
FAREWELL TO the Knesset

FAREWELL TO the Knesset. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Government transparency means government responsibility and accountability. These are issues that any government that has the interests of its citizens at heart should promote, regardless of its political agenda. 


A case in point is the fact that Michael Eitan, the former minister most active in promoting government transparency, was a member of the Likud Party. He was one of the first to understand that government transparency is more than just the right of citizens to receive information; it is a national interest. 
It is at the very foundations of sound management and ensures the public’s faith in the government. When a government is transparent and wins public trust, it acts more effectively and more efficiently. 


What does transparency encompass? If all we want to know about are the expenses for the Prime Minister’s Residence, then we do not need a Minister of Transparency, since the Freedom of Information Law was enacted for this very purpose. So, if a citizen wants to receive information, all he or she needs to do is submit a formal FOI request. 


However, in reality, things are not so simple. Implantation of the Law is problematic, and the authorities must make significant improvements in this area. 


At present in the State of Israel, the Freedom of Information Unit in the Justice Ministry does not even have a permanent director. Even when a director is appointed, this unit does not have the binding authority to really help those seeking information. 


Moreover, transparency cannot be dependent on the degree of the public’s activism. 


To obtain information by making a request via the Freedom of Information Law, practical steps have to be taken: a request must be submitted, a fee must be paid, and in many cases, it is necessary to “nag” and make frequent reminders before the requested information is received. And if there is no one who is interested enough in finding out about expenses for the Prime Minister’s Residence to submit an official request, does the public not then have a right to know?


Therefore, the government must appoint a person whose primary goal is to strengthen the Unit for Freedom of Information (UFI) so that when citizens request information from the police, the local authority in which they live, or from any other governmental authority, they will be able to receive the requested information without a lengthy and exhausting legal process.


However, the transparency minister’s mandate would extend beyond this. The person chosen to take the lead on the issue of transparency must do far more, primarily with regard to opening up government databases. This is not a simple matter. Thorough work needs to be done to maintain privacy and protect the databases, but these are tasks inherently bound up with the promotion of government transparency. 


Estonia is an interesting example that we can learn from and emulate. This is a country that practices e-governance, so that most of the government’s services to its citizens are provided online. 


To make this possible, citizens must have access to many databases and many registries, and these must be readily available online. Transparency also applies to the world of business and commerce. Business transparency is not only good for local companies, but also for those operating abroad, making it possible for them to access a great deal of information about developing trade connections with the country known as a “paradise for foreign investors.” Thus, transparency in business has economic benefits for the entire country.


The Minister of Transparency could easily promote issues such as making databases readily accessible for the business sector, and could work together with the Justice Minister to expand the mandate of the UFI to also include local authorities.


 Such a minister could ask citizens what information is most important for them to receive: a report on rates of infections in hospitals, or the list of visitors to the Knesset? The minister could then initiate publication of the requested information. A Minister of Transparency would represent Israel in international initiatives and ensure that Israel complies with the obligations adopted in these forums. 


Above all, citizens and civil society organizations, working to promote the public’s right to information and to improve the public’s trust in the government, would have an address to turn to.


The fact that for a long time there has not been a member of the government who takes the issue of transparency seriously, as well as the recent decision to cancel the Transparency Committee chaired by Labor MK Stav Shaffir, means that we now know a lot less. We the public, are in a weak position vis a vis the powers-that-be, who are well versed in the information and exercise control over it. A Minister of Transparency committed to promoting government transparency would boost the public’s trust in the government and would prove to voters that their elected officials are accountable to them – who, after all, pay their salaries.


The writer is director of the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions at the Israel Democracy Institute. 

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