Instituto Brasileiro de Mercado de Capitais (IBMC)
This report, published by the Open Society Foundation's Latin America and Information Programmes, discusses how newly formed parliamentary monitoring organisations (PMOs) are strategically using internet technologies to forge spaces and tactics to bring citizens and governments together. According to the report, with their ability to shape a nation's economic, social, and political future, national parliaments have an incredible amount of power and influence over the citizens they represent. Yet in Latin America, public trust in the deliberative branch of government is alarmingly low. Part of the solution is political reform, but if parliaments are to become more trustworthy and effective, citizens also need to proactively engage representatives by means of greater participation and monitoring. This report asks how parliamentary monitoring organisations can leverage online and offline strategies to make legislative information of greater social and political utility and increase their measurable impact. It focuses on Latin America, but provides inferences designed to be applicable across regions.
The study finds three non-exclusive models of PMO projection: an Engagement Model, a Social Accountability Model, and a Research Model. While the first model focuses on engaging citizens with the parliamentary process, a Social Accountability Model uses and re-uses parliamentary information as a means of keeping officials accountable. The Research Model, by contrast, focuses on providing in-depth information on parliamentary activity while maintaining a relatively agnostic approach toward the political process. While all three models are perfectly legitimate and represent only rough approximations, each approach emphasises different online and offline strategies.
The report begins by highlighting the importance of voting transparency as a goal yet to be fully realised. The report suggests that PMOs should continue to push for transparency and application programming interfaces (APIs) so that data on parliaments can flow freely. The first section also discusses the need for PMOs to attend to the challenges posed by particular institutional configuration: strong presidents and weak legislator-constituent connections. Yet there is institutional variation across the region, and PMOs must design strategies accordingly.
The second part of the report examines the study’s three principal case studies and their national settings — Brazil's Vote na Web, Chile's Vota Inteligente, and Colombia's Congreso Visible. It analysed internet traffic and promotional strategies and found that search engine optimisation should be a priority. All but Congreso Visible’s Google search results were poor. It also found that outreach can play an important role in increasing traffic, creating measurable impact, and fostering the growth of a country’s transparency infrastructure and ecosystem.
The final section examines the availability of legislative information and the strategic position of PMOs within each country. It found that Brazil's Vote na Web serves more as a vehicle for political engagement and participation than as a vehicle for research or monitoring. By contrast, Vota Inteligente and its parent foundation, Ciudadano Inteligente, act as a social accountability initiative by promoting accountability, advocating reform, and advancing transparency and openness more generally. Finally, Congreso Visible is clearly oriented toward serving as a valuable resource for research. The organisations in question thus represent three models of PMO: the Engagement Model, the Social Accountability Model, and the Research Model.
The report sets out three general recommendations. First, the most basic hurdle for effective PMOs is still political and logistical: the challenge of obtaining complete and timely legislative information and expeditiously presenting it to the public in easy-to-use formats. PMOs should have the same access to legislative information as parliamentary administrators. In short, pressure needs to be put on governments to:
- put all legislative activity online and improve the accessibility of websites;
- consistently engage in public, nominal votes that are recorded at the committee and plenary levels; and
- make voting records, agendas, transcripts, bills, campaign finance contributions, and all parliamentary information highly accessible in one place, in open formats.
Second, if PMOs are to become highly relevant, they need to carefully articulate their strategic directions. Some PMOs risk spreading resources too thin. Others focus on participation, but lack the forward or backwards linkages with other organisations, political leaders, academics, media, or policy advocates that might lend depth to PMO participation. Others appear to let interest in technology heavily influence their direction, rather than putting technology at the disposal of strategy. In short, strategy means defining the scope of a project and the choice of tools. Strategy means focusing above all on relevance and measurable impact.
Third, PMOs need to better integrate themselves into the transparency and accountability ecosystems of their respective countries. Numerous actors use legislative information: virtually all issue-based non-governmental organisations, academics from multiple disciplines, the media, citizens, and businesses, among others. PMOs should serve as a major node within the advocacy community: Partnerships and collaborations should radiate out from PMOs. There are relatively easy ways to accomplish this goal, such as automatically sending policy alerts to relevant organisations and inviting them to sign-in, provide a link, identify themselves as supporters or opponents of legislation, or write a short report, blog post, or comment. The limited outreach of PMOs may be more a reflection of scarce resources than indisposition - PMOs spend most of their time collecting data and documenting legislative activity. But it may also reflect that PMOs are privileging online strategies at the cost of offline impact.
The document concludes with a 7-page appendix listing specify offline and online tactics and tools, which can be used and adapted based on context and need.
Open Society Foundation website on August 22 2012.