Brazil-based transparency and freedom of information scholar Greg Michener has authored the first major report on the use of online platforms to understand and monitor parliaments in Latin America. Commissioned by the Open Society Foundations, “Parliamentary Power to the People,” assesses the role of three such platforms in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile.

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Discontent and Disconnected

Fundar, a transparency organization based in Mexico City, took to the streets with a video camera in hand to ask their fellow residents one simple question: what do you think about when you hear the word congressman or congresswoman?

“Excessively high salaries,” responds a young woman eating ice cream with her friends. “The first thing to come to mind … is that they’re lazy,” says another. “They take our tax money, but they don’t tell us what they do with it.” “In theory they should be public servants of the people,” says one man in a crowded shopping area, but another is more forthcoming: “they’re lazy swindlers with beer bellies because all they do is drink and sit around.”

A 2005 survey by Covarrubias y Asociados found that 77% of Mexicans consider their House of Representatives (Cámara de Diputados) to be “extremely corrupt.” A 2010 Latinobarometer survey found that only half of Mexicans feel that Congress is necessary at all.

Mexicans’ discontent with the performance of their elected representatives is repeated throughout Latin America. In this first major, methodological report on the use of online platforms to monitor congress, scholar Greg Michener emphasizes that of 12 institutions evaluated by the Americas Barometer, only political parties garner greater distrust than parliaments.

Just as severe as Latin Americans’ discontentment with congress, however, is their disconnectedness. Those who were quick to criticize the work of their congressional representatives in the Fundar video were not able to identify them by name. Few Latin Americans can — and even fewer are aware of how legislation become law.

The Opportunity

Michener’s report examines online legislative transparency platforms in Chile, Brazil, and Colombia. Over half the population in Chile and Colombia now have access to Internet, according to Internet World Stats. Brazil is rapidly catching up, with 37% Internet penetration and an explosion of growth in mobile data subscription plans. In absolute numbers, Brazil now has over 70 million Internet users.

Over the past ten years a wave of freedom of information legislation has been signed into law throughout the region, mandating congress to make timely information accessible via their websites. At the same time, programmers and web developers have built and improved computer scripts that automatically extract data such as voting and attendance records from government websites. Finally, Latin America is one of the most active regions in the use of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Hi5, and Orkut.

Online legislative transparency platforms like Vote na Web, Vota Inteligente, and Congreso Visible take advantage of all the above trends. They extract information from official government websites, present it in more attractive and easier-to-understand formats, and then distribute timely updates via social networks.

On the Brazilian platform Vote Na Web, users can also compare their own votes for or against legislation with the votes of their representatives. In theory, the platform could offer citizens and political scientists a way to measure the representativeness of a senator’s votes with those of her constituents.

The Challenge

Michener identifies multiple challenges that face legislative transparency platforms like Vote na Web, Vota Inteligente, and Congreso Visible. First and foremost, parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) still struggle to obtain complete and timely information from congress, including voting records, lobbying activities, and debate transcripts. Second, many legislative transparency platforms are somewhat isolated from the larger transparency and accountability ecosystems of their countries. Without the active participation of civil society, investigative journalists, and academics, the impact of such platforms will remain constrained. Finally, like so much of the Internet, most legislative transparency platforms arose unsystematically, through a series of iterations that each apply the latest technological possibilities with the most useful legislative information available. Consequently, strategy can easily become an afterthought rather than the guiding principle of each organization. Michener suggests a greater focus on relevance, concrete objectives, and measurable impact.

Another difficulty facing parliamentary monitoring organizations faces us all: information overload. Michener illustrates the challenge with some simple numbers from Brazil. From 2000 to 2010 Brazil’s Congress approved an average of 656 laws a year. The Lower House alone introduced 700 initiatives a year, of which only 14% became law. Each bill is approximately 3,000 words; in other words, approximately 1,200 pages of legislative production per month. Then there are dozens of committee meetings, policy reviews, party statements, legislative debates, voting records, and more. No single person could possibly capture such a deluge of legalese and political posturing, though websites like Congreso Visible try to present the daunting sum of activity in manageable portions of data that inform users about the work and performance of their representatives.

The Road Ahead

Other obstacles can be interpreted as opportunities. One interviewee in the report observes that few NGOs in her country understand the legislative process, even though they are quick to criticize its results. Legislative transparency platforms can make use of regular workshops, info-graphics, and animations to help explain the legislative process to its users. As we mentioned earlier this year, the U.S.-based platform PopVox invites NGOs and think tanks to briefly explain their support or opposition of particular bills — offering further guidance and context for citizens.

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Furthermore, active collaboration between national Wikipedia chapters and parliamentary monitoring organizations can both bring more traffic to legislative transparency platforms and help keep relevant Wikipedia pages up to date.

Michener cites preliminary research by Dartmouth University Professor John Carey which suggests that “transparency in the legislative process increases legislators’ incentives to act in the public interest, fosters universalism in the provision of public goods, and diminishes costs associated with the legislative process, such as heavy patronage payoffs in return for votes.”

The use of online technologies to foster greater legislative transparency is still in its infancy, but the rapid growth of Internet access and the recent global, social media-fueled movement against corruption puts these platforms in a unique position to help hold legislators accountable and improve congressional performance.

Michener’s report is a timely piece of constructive criticism and lays the first mile of a long road map to increase the relevance and impact of such initiatives.

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