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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title II - Promoting a Culture of Openness

Sec. 1. Public Ownership of Parliamentary Information

Parliamentary information belongs to the public; any exceptions or limitations to this principle shall be narrowly defined by law.

The notion that parliamentarians serve at the behest of the public is fundamental to democratic governance. It follows that information produced by or for parliament belongs to the citizens. While this principle enjoys broad support of a variety of international bodies, some parliaments limit citizen access to information, which can limit public engagement in policy discussions. In other instances, parliament may provide certain information only upon request, rather than as a matter of course. Parliament may also provide information in formats that restrict the tools available to citizens to access and analyze legislative information. The availability of parliamentary information, with limited and clearly defined restrictions for particularly sensitive material, ensures maximum accountability of the legislative body to the public and amplifies the role of citizens in the legislative process.

This principle has been enshrined in the African Union’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, that “Public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good and everyone has a right to access this information, subject only to clearly defined rules established by law.”[1] The European Parliament stated in its founding regulations in 2001, “In principle, all documents of the institutions shall be accessible to the public,” noting limited exceptions.[2] The Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas (COPA), in its Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, asserts that, “Information regarding legislation must be accessible not only to all parliamentarians, but also to the general public… Parliament must recognize access to information as a fundamental right of citizens.”[3] The public’s right to information held by governing institutions more broadly is the organizing principle of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a partnership of more than 55 governments. OGP recognizes that “Openness with respect to government-produced information is part of the right of the public to access any output of taxpayer funding…”[4] The United Nations Human Rights Commission further confirms that transparency of public bodies is a vital component of democratic governance, stating that “transparency and accountability” are “essential elements of democracy.”

New Zealand’s Data and Information Management Principles, adopted in 2011, articulate this principle as follows: “Data and information held and owned by government … effectively belong to the New Zealand public; [and] are a core strategic asset held by the government as a steward on behalf of the public…”[5] Recently adopted open data standards for the Chamber of Deputies in Brazil express a similar sentiment, stating in its adoption, “The Chamber of Deputies reinforces its commitment to transparency and the right of all citizens to public information.”[6]

To enhance citizen access to information, many countries, including almost all member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), have adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws requiring governments – often times including parliaments – to heed citizen requests for information.[7] The organization Right2INFO.org, which monitors right to information laws globally, notes that “The right to access to official information is now protected by the constitutions of some 60 countries” in every region of the world.[8] While FOI laws codify processes for citizens to petition for access to information and for the resolution of disputes when citizens perceive that their right to information has been violated, FOI laws are reactive in nature, stopping short of requiring the proactive provision of government information.

Yet the concept of public ownership of parliamentary (and government) information implies the obligation of public institutions to proactively disclose information. According to Access Info and the Open Knowledge Foundation, “For members of the public, the automatic availability of information means timely access to information and hence reduces the need to file information requests. Additionally, in countries still emerging from authoritarian regimes or where corruption is widespread, proactive disclosure permits anonymous access and so gives some protection to applicants from weaker segments of society who might not feel comfortable writing to government bodies to ask for information for fear of repercussions.”[9] Public ownership further implies that information released by public institutions should comply with open data principles (see provision 36) so that public information can be freely reused by citizens.

While citizens have a broad right to access parliamentary information, instances in which a parliament may withhold public information for a period of time should be narrowly defined and clearly stated in law. Whether exceptions seek to protect against the release of personal private information, protect information linked to state security, or to prevent a chilling effect on the ability of elected representatives to access information and fully analyze proposals under consideration[10], any such measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are aware of the fact that information has been protected, and to allow citizens to contest the protection of information by an independent authority in a timely fashion.


[1] Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, 32nd Session, 17 – 23 October, 2002: Banjul, The Gambia, Section 4.1. http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/achpr/expressionfreedomdec.html. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[2] Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. Official Journal L 145, 31/05/2001 P. 0043 – 0048. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=CELEX:32001R1049:en:HTML. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[3] Parliamentary Confederation of the Americas, The Contributions of Parliaments to Democracy: Benchmarks for the Parliaments of the Americas, § 2.2.7.3 and § 4.1.1.1. Document prepared by the Quebec Secretariat of COPA, National Assembly of Quebec, September 2011. http://www.copa.qc.ca/eng/committees/Democracy-Peace/documents/DOC-CDP-criteres-a-VF_000.pdf. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[4] Transparency and Accountability Initiative [hereinafter, “TAI”], Opening Government, 2011, p. 1. http://www.transparency-initiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/15-Open-government11.pdf. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[5] Government of New Zealand, Principles for Managing Data and Information held by the New Zealand Government, approved by Cabinet on 8 August 2011 (CAB Min (11) 29/12 refers). http://ict.govt.nz/programme/opening-government-data-and-information/new-zealand-data-and-information-management-princi. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[6] Brazil Chamber of Deputies, Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies, http://www2.camara.gov.br/transparencia/dados-abertos. Accessed 6/11/2012 and translated from the Portuguese.

[7] Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development [hereinafter, “OECD”], Government at a Glance 2011, p. 195, http://www.oecd.org/document/3/0,3746,en_2649_33735_43714657_1_1_1_1,00.html. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[8] Further information on the laws of individual countries can be found at http://right2info.org/constitutional-protections-of-the-right-to. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[9] p. 69. http://www.access-info.org/documents/Access_Docs/Advancing/Beyond_Access_7_January_2011_web.pdf

[10] Some legislatures, for example, protect from disclosure requests by citizens for information, research and analysis from internal parliamentary research services. The exception is intended to put elected representatives in the best possible position to be fully informed on matters under consideration by the body, without members fearing that they will be perceived to have asked overly simple or basic questions, without having to reveal political tactics, and without fear of reprisal from narrow special interest or pressure groups for simply seeking information and analysis on an issue.