Information Access and Transparency

In the recent national elections, we saw several initiatives that were implemented to provide more information to people about their elected representatives. The purpose of providing this information was to enable people to make more informed choices about who they cast their votes for. Some among these initiatives aim at achieving the larger goals of transparency, accountability and good governance i.e., their goal in providing information about elected representatives is not only to help people to vote more responsibly; it is also expected that citizens will use this information to monitor the performance of their elected representatives and hold them accountable after they have been voted in. Consequently, there is an attempt to collate information beyond that which is made available through candidate affidavits, i.e., about the state of development in parliamentary constituencies, election manifestoes and promises, news about elected representatives and constituencies, etc. These initiatives fulfill one aspect of the larger discourse about transparency i.e., providing access to information about “the state”. It is presumed that providing such information will encourage people to engage with the state and participate in monitoring its activities. My aim in this post is to dissect this logic somewhat further and to highlight some of the political dynamics which complicate any simple understandings of transparency and information access. I will conclude this post by making some tentative remarks on the possible ways in which information access can be configured in order to serve certain local needs.

“We would like to see and know which are the issues that the elected representatives of our party are voting on and rasing questions about during assembly and council sessions.”

“This is great! Now, can you provide all this information about all the elected representatives (ERs) from the Congress Party?”

Both the above remarks were made by senior party functionaries of prominent political parties in Maharashtra. They were shown an information platform where detailed information about the assets of ERs, their criminal records, education status, the questions they have asked, the issues they have voted on and the major problems in their constituencies and complaints lodged against these problems have been collated and presented for citizens to see and use in fostering transparency and accountability. This demonstration was done to seek the support of senior party members and functionaries for persuading the ERs of their parties to communicate directly with the citizens through this platform and respond regularly to complaints and queries posted here. Following some of the presentations, senior party functionaries and members congratulated the makers of the platform but asked if they could specially be provided with particular kinds of information about the ERs from their party. I find these remarks from the senior party functionaries and members very instructive for analyzing the consequences that certain forms of transparencies can have for the overal democratic process and dynamics. Let me explain this in some detail.

In 1985, the then Congress Government under Rajiv Gandhi introduced the (in)famous Tenth Schedule in the Indian Constitution and the anti-defection law. The anti-defection law made it legal to expel all those members of the party who either voted against the party’s stand in the legislatures or who left the party to join another party. Essentially, what the anti-defection law did was to curb dissent – dissent, which is one of the primary requisites for a healthy democracy. In effect, this law also centralized the command and control systems within major political parties. It concentrated more authority in the hands of senior leaders and members and disempowered those at the lower rungs. The other effect of the anti-defection law was the proliferation of several big and small parties at the national, regional and state level which were mainly floated by dissenting members of major parties who could not legitimately express their dissent because of the anti-defection law.

Another major transition that has taken place in the political economy scheme is the sanction and implementation of mega infrastructure projects for cities which are not always beneficial for the majority, but which serve certain interests and imaginations concerning cities and citizens. The sanctions for these projects are usually issued by the state and national level politicians, often by overriding any discussion on the importance/impact of these projects by city administrative agencies and local politicians. Hence, it becomes even more important to exercise control over local level politicians and party functionaries so that they do not subvert the implementation of the mega infrastructure projects. The case of Mangalore municipal council is illustrative of how local governments are often genuinely concerned about the effects of mega infrastructure projects on cities and various citizen groups and how council debates can sometimes bring together ERs across party lines to vote against mega infrastructure projects that can have negative repercussions for majority of the people.

Given the centralization of authority within major political parties and the political economy of urban infrastructure projects, transparency in terms of providing information about elected representatives, is a sensitive matter. Hence, it is not surprising that senior party functionaries and members asked the creators of the information portal to specifically provide them with information about ERs from their party and about the questions they were asking in the legislative council. Three issues are important here:

  1. The first concerns the process by which buy-ins are sought for e-governance and internet-enabled transparency initiatives. The support for these initiatives is usually obtained from senior bureaucrats and more recently, from senior/prominent national and state-level politicians/political party members. Lobbying for implementation is done at this level because it is felt that compliance will be made much easier once orders are issued from the top. However, such as ‘top-down’ approach often overlooks the power dynamics and the issues of contests between the senior and the lower level officials. Hence, compliance issued from the top can be disempowering even though the original intent/justification is ’empowerment’ (and even ‘decentralization’!).
  2. The availability of the Internet as a space where information can be published and made accessible has several effects. On the one hand, the Internet makes it possible to provide large amounts of information to a significant section of the population. On the other hand, e-governance policies of the state now allow government agencies and bureaucracies to publish vast amounts of information, most of which may be outdated and irrelevant, and yet be labelled as transparent and accountable. Here, transparency is used as a trope for concealing otherwise relevant and important information. For instance, when I visited the office of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) floated to manage a mega urban infrastructure project to collect some information, the bureaucrat there mentioned to me at the end of our conversation, “All the information is there on our website. Still people come here to ask. We have put up everything.” In reality, this was not true because some important studies that were conducted to justify the implementation of the project had still not been put up/made publically available.
  3. The use of the Internet for providing information and for streamlining administrative processes needs to be conceived as only one of the avenues that are otherwise available to citizens. There are numerous cultural and local ways and processes of acquiring information. Moreover, what is considered as information by one group is not information for another. This also brings us to the issue of what is construed as ‘information’ and by who. Also, some kinds of information are very prized and premium and hence, the manner in which these are obtained can be at divergences from a normative standpoint of transparency – for instance, information about land claims, tenure systems and land records. Projecting any one medium of providing information to people as ‘the only’ medium is both counterproductive and likely to result in opacities at other levels. Hence, internet enabled transparency systems need to be viewed as one of the many avenues available for people to use and/or mobilize.

What does all this imply for some of the transparency and information access initiatives and that have been introduced in recent times? Firstly, this mode of politics and engagement with the state is relatively new and hence, there are likely to be adaptations and disruptions. For instance, the Bhoomi system whose goal was to make it easier for farmers to procure land records, resulted in centralizing corruption and dispossessing marginal farmers off their lands. On the other hand, introduction of the Online Complaint Monitoring System (OCMS) for simplifying the process of lodging complaints with the municipality, provided an avenue for municipal councilors to file multiple complaints for the same problem in order to bring it to the attention of the bureaucrats who are eventually responsible for allocating budgetary resources for resolving infrastructure problems.

Secondly, not all kinds of information may be useful to all kinds of people at all times. Some information may be relevant to some at particular junctures. For instance, in Delhi, information about the 24×7 water privatization project agreed on by the state government and the World Bank was critical for the residents of South Delhi. But this was not so for the middle-class residents of the K-East ward in Mumbai where a similar proposal was in the pipeline (literally). [See this page for more information.] On the same plane, it may be considered political to publish information about how many assembly sessions an ER has attended during his/her term, but such information may not convey much about the actual work done by the ER or may even be misleading for our evaluations of him/her. In a training held for community workers and residents of bastis in Delhi on disseminating information about ERs to the rest of their communities, the basti dwellers reported that found information pertaining to the education status and the attendance records of ER irrelevant for their purposes. They were more interested to determine what work each ER had done during his/her term. Even then, information about works and discretionary funds used has to be contextualized in the light of the fact that there are contests for access to public resources among different socio-economic groups residing in cities. This means that the construction of a side road for which an ER may have spent money from his/her discretionary fund, may be deemed as useless when seen in the context of what value it added to the constituency. But such a side road may have been important for facilitating the growth of a local economic system.

Does this then mean that information access initiatives are redundant? My aim is not to deride these initiatives. I have tried to indicate here some of the dynamics in a democratic polity which have to be accounted for to grasp the effects of transparency. A few initiatives have been relevant in recent times. For instance, www.EmpoweringIndia.org is now developing into an archive of information (currently very basic affidavit information) about ERs contesting state assemblyand national Parliament elections such that over time, one can track the upward climb of electoral candidates. Then, particular kinds of internet based information access systems have been developed to monitor elections in authoritarian countries and these have, at the very least, brought before the world information that would have otherwise been concealed. Further, some systems have been designed in a manner which challenge government created information sytems and seek to provide more detailed information to citizens. See for instance http://www.govtrack.us vis-a-vis http://thomas.loc.gov/ We are also currently witnessing interesting experiments in mapping which are trying to take maps out of the domains of geography and cartography and instead creating and presenting maps as a medium to tell stories. See the work of www.openstreetmap.org/ And there usages of blogs aand social media to mobilize people to government opacities – the case of freeing Dr. Binayak Sen is a case in point in recent times. Such initiatives are critical in rethinking the discourse of transparency and how spaces such as the Internet can be mobilized to enforce greater public accountability.

[This blog post is an outcome of a monograph which I have been writing for the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Bangalore on “Internet, Transparency and Politics”]

2 thoughts on “Information Access and Transparency”

  1. Nice article Zainab.

    While the Internet holds enormous potential as a tool for social change, it is by no means obvious what shape this change will take. I often liken the Internet to Guttenberg’s printing press. It multiplied many fold the amount of information at the common person’s disposal and yes, it did have a profound social impact but even so, 400 years later, we still live in highly unequal societies. In some countries, the social order is essentially unchanged from those times. In others, the elites have found ways around the mass of information, co-opting it, filling the airwaves with garbage, propagating cultures which benefit themselves – so is this to be the fate of the Internet? Failure is certainly an option.

    Many citizen’s initiatives towards transparency etc. are focussing on the politician but in the scheme of things and in the best case scenario, wide access to information is going to make the politician irrelvant. i.e. something like an “internet party” can be conceived, where the elected leader is simply a proxy voter for his constituency. A politician is actually just a rent seeker, charging rent for his access to information and for his discretionary powers. In the days of snail mail, great discretionary powers had to be handed to the elected representative, but this is no longer necessary and so discretionary power should be taken away from the politician and replaced with a responsive voting system. Surely people who spend money on voting in the next Idol would respond enthusiastically :-) ? Internet based efforts towards greater equality and access should, IMO, focus on making the elected representative absolutely irrelevant.

    An important player in the whole scheme of things who has not, to my limited knowledge, been paid much attention is the humble bureaucrat. The bureaucrat holds a large amount of political power, and what’s more, his rent seeking behaviour typically has a much longer time frame of upwards of twenty years, rendering him less rapacious than your garden variety politician who thinks in five year terms.

    I am sure you have also met bureaucrats with a great deal of commitment, proper persons as it were. Were there to be a greater transparency in his functioning, systems to make his tasks easier and greater devolution of power down the hierarchy, it would take away a great deal of the incentive and opportunity for unbridled corruption that exists today.

    I remain confident that great changes for the good are underway. A cultural tectonic shift in underway. By the time “Cable’s Children” come of age, we will see some radical transformations, hopefully for the better. People born after the fall of the Wall, whose understanding of Socialism is not tainted by cold war connotations, will revisit the concept with far more open minds. And with the internet, they can go very far indeed.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. There are some things that I need to clarify, which perhaps I did not express more forcefully in this blog post.

    1). A politician or for that matter, a bureaucrat is not a homogeneous entity. This means that the national level politician differs from the state level and from the ones representing the city/panchayat. Each of these have different stakes and therefore, their extents of rent-seeking would differ. What also matters is how you define rent-seeking? What constitutes acts of corruption for you?
    I have provided a link to this insightful article by Gururaja Budhiya and Solomon Benjamin on how city councillors try to question whether certain infrastructure projects are actually worthwhile for the city as a whole. Not all politicians and not all at all times are “useless” as may be projected in popular media. Such debate and discussions are crucial for what you and I may call a representative democracy.
    What the anti-defection law has done is to curb the autonomy of individual politicians and brought them under the control of the party. Therefore, with respect to the use of Internet for enforcing transparency too, the issue is whether such application can curb autonomy in one way or the other. Having said this, it is also known that in some cases, attempts to enforce control by strengthening gaze can cause people to become visible and invisible in various ways.

    2). Secondly, there are cultural and social ways by which people access information and make evaluations based on certain kinds of information. As long as we conceive the Internet to be one more avenue for providing people with information and not THE ONLY ONE, then it is adds to the possibilities and avenues available to people.

    3). I am not sure that transparency and accountability initiatives implemented through the Internet aim to make politicians redundant. Having been involved with three such initiatives, it is clear that the effort is to get people to engage with their elected representatives and to facilitate the process of direct communication. At one time, e-governance initiatives were implemented by lobbying and involving bureaucrats. But civil society organizations recognized the limits of this approach and also the fact that you cannot keep the politicians out of such efforts if you are intending to facilitate the process of democracy.

    4). Finally, I think it is too far fetched to say that we have a politician less democracy. What alternative would you propose in this case? Unless of course you talk of anarchy, which I am not fundamentally against. At the same time, I think it is not correct that children born after the Cold War will have a different conception of Socialism because they did not experience socialism of the brand that was operative during the Cold War. It was clearly authoritarianism, surveillance and lack of freedom under the Cold War which was packaged as both socialism and capitalism. Those who were born to families who experienced all of these are likely to understand this through their parents’ experiences and memories. What their understanding of socialism or, for that matter capitalism, will be is a matter of their personal choices rather than of the baggage of what was defined as socialism by the authorities.

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