We continue to present a series of articles that shed light on the positive aspects of the American experience and how it can be employed to achieve real positive changes in the main challenges Egypt faces. This series may be beneficial for decision-makers and those interested in the Egyptian public affairs. It is based on the pieces written by a participant of the “International Visitor” programme in the US with the aim of getting closely acquainted with some aspects regarding the administration of the federal, state, and county authorities.
In the previous article we discussed the issue of public spending priorities. In this article, we look at the transparency system and making information accessible through their original sources. This point is a cornerstone in terms of any issue regarding accountability, integrity, and fending off corruption, especially since civil society activists in Egypt have long demanded to adopt a suitable law for information access. These demands, however, were only met by procrastination by the government.
The system of information exchange in the US is characterised by several federal laws that grant an ability to access information freely to any interested party and narrow the scope of exceptions to this fundamental right.
Information availability in the US is based on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issued during the era of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. It grants access to any documents held by sub-executive agencies, departments, regulatory commissions, and companies controlled by the government. According to the law, any individual can issue a request without making his American nationality or place of residency clear. Information is sometimes even available through electronic means. This applies to information previously requested by other people.
Even though the American law includes nine exceptions, such as national security information, personal and bank information, and discussions regarding the pre-decision making phase, the law stresses the importance of narrowing the number of those exceptions. Certain authorities are given the power to decide on the confidentiality of this kind of information.
Of course the picture is not perfect; some complain about the prolonged process of accessing information; however, evidence has shown that information availability was more important than keeping their confidentiality.
The exciting part about the American experience is that the freedom of accessing information in some states is greater than on the federal level. Many states apply complementary laws, known as open record laws [Editor’s note: the term also applies to laws on the federal level]. They adopt a great initiative in terms of making information available to the public.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the information centre of the city runs an initiative known as ABQ View. It provides detailed information about the performance of government authorities and also provides information about wages, bonuses, and the dates they were obtained by officials. It also includes copies of review and inspection reports of all licensed areas in the city.
Pressure groups and civil society organisations play a strong role in making the information available through pressuring the government. These groups are the main actor that guarantees the obtainment of information from their original sources.
The question now remains, to what extent can the American model of information access be copied by Egypt? Are there meaningful obstacles that justify expanding the exceptions’ scope? Is the matter limited to only approving laws or are there mechanisms to be established to regulate information access?
The truth is that copying the American model in Egypt seems difficult for several political, security, economic, cultural, and institutional considerations; however, that does not mean that using the model as a guide to establish an ambitious information exchange system is off the table.
For example, a law could be adopted which stipulates that original information is available without causing problems in terms of determining exceptions. It is important to determine the exceptions accurately in order to prevent misunderstandings. The law should include the formation of an authority whose members are technical, judicial, and security elements, with the mission of categorising information and documents on a scale from “confidential” to “public”, while allowing information requestors to file appeals to the decisions made by the authority to a specialised judicial authority in a short time span.
In all cases, it should be made clear that the law includes a ban on circulation of personal and banking information, but at the same time, the law must stipulate that government bodies should publish information regarding public spending, including wages, bonuses, and allowances of government employees. Military and security spending could be exempted, though.
A strong system must be established to make all records of meetings and sessions of civil bodies available, whether executive or elected bodies.
Article 68 in the Egyptian Constitution provides an ambitious framework to adopt a new law for information circulation; however, the current practices, whether by the parliament or the government, look very gloomy. The awaited law may not come in line with the Constitution or meet the demands of the actors in the Egyptian civil society. This requires everyone to carry out accurate reading of the experiences of other countries that have already applied a concept that implies that information of any kind is a right of citizens.