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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title II - Promoting a Culture of Openness

Sec. 12. Ensuring the Accuracy of Information

Parliament shall ensure a process to retain authoritative records and guarantee that the information it releases to the public is accurate.

Parliament must commit to retaining an authoritative copy of its records to prevent forgery or the entry of accidental changes over time. These authoritative records help ensure that the accuracy of parliamentary information remains valid over time. The accuracy and authority of the information released by parliament is a vital component of the rule of law, and allows citizens to participate in the lawmaking process. The European Parliament’s OPPD has stressed, especially given the rising role of information and communications technology, that “this increase in the number of sources that provide information and opinions about public policy issues makes it imperative that the official site of the legislature be authoritative and non-partisan.” The IPU lists as a requirement for parliaments that “Manual or automated procedures and systems are in place to ensure the accuracy of documentation and media available on the website.”[1]

Although the need to provide information in a timely manner, discussed above, may conflict at times with the duty of ensuring the accuracy of information, the adoption of open document standards by parliaments is helping to limit the significance of such tradeoffs. “Because open document standards allow for structured input of information (such as tagging of articles and clauses in a legislative text), these documents help structure the legislative process and cut down on human error. For the European Parliament, which has adopted an XML-based legislative markup system, this has led to dramatic reductions in the time spent drafting legislation and verifying its accuracy. Authors no longer need to concern themselves with layout issues and all amendments are stored individually so they can be reused if not adopted.”[2] 

To help ensure accuracy, the Sunlight Foundation’s standards for open government note that “datasets released by the government should be primary source data.”[3] The public relations office of the Ugandan Parliament states as one of its core goals to “disseminate accurate information.”[4] In the UK, the House of Commons Information Office goes so far as to offer to proofread any text written by citizens about the Parliament “in the interest of providing accurate information about Parliament.”[5] In Canada, the parliament’s legislative information service PARLINFO is explicit in its mission to “[make] every effort to ensure the accuracy and currency of its information, using authoritative, publicly available sources.”[6]

However, in the era of open data, the notion of accuracy has broadened beyond simply providing the authoritative text of a document. As Joshua Tauberer of explains: “Accuracy as defined here is a more nuanced notion by making it always relative to a particular purpose.”[7] In this sense, accuracy must take the context and medium into account in order to ensure that information presented gives citizens the full picture of what occurred. For the citizen seeking to analyze a particular plenary vote, an audiovisual recording of the session may provide a number of facts, but the medium used may not allow for easy and systematic use of the facts desired. Similarly, as Tauberer writes: “An image recording of a typed physical document, i.e. a scan, has low accuracy with regard to these facts [plenary vote tallies in the example used here] because automated analysis of a large volume of such records could not avoid a large number of errors. OCR (optical character recognition) software to “read” the letters and numbers in a scan will occasionally swap letters, yielding an incorrect read of the facts.”[8] If accuracy is to be retained for any way in which citizens want – or will inevitably – utilize this information, then parliaments must provide parliamentary information through multiple channels (provision 27) and in an open and structured format (provision 36).

[1] IPU, Guidelines for Parliamentary Websites, §6.4d.

[2] Andrew Mandelbaum, “How XML Can Improve Transparency and Workflows for Parliaments,” 5 Apr 2012. Accessed 6/12/2012.

[3] The Sunlight Foundation, Agenda 2011. Accessed 11/15/2011.

[4] Website of the Parliament of Uganda, Accessed 3/25/2012.

[5] Website of the U.K. Parliament, Accessed 6/12/2012.

[6] Website of the Parliament of Canada, Accessed 2/14/2012.

[7] Joshua Tauberer, Open Government Data, April 2012, Section 5.2. Accessed 05/29/2012.

[8] Ibid.