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Tunisia’s Next Revolution: Open Government

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April 2012 - The energy of Tunisia’s revolution flooded on to the streets in cities and towns across the country with crowds demanding fundamental changes to their society. Over a year later, finding ways to build trust and consolidate the hopes of this changed society is a slow-moving second revolution, short on dramatic headlines and long on detail.

New laws and policies are needed to translate the spirit of the demonstrations and these will have an impact no less profound than the path-breaking revolution itself. But it is a painstaking process to design and implement laws that institutionalize a new relationship between citizens and state.

And this is only one component. Legislation alone will not deliver good governance and active citizenship. People need to learn how to operate in this new environment: bureaucrats to implement new laws; citizens to understand their new rights and voice them; and everyone to embrace an open government model based on transparency, accountability, and participation in policy design and implementation. Managing these nuts and bolts to realize the vocal demands of the streets is as vital as the march down Avenue Bourguiba on January 14 2011.

One of the first laws to be introduced by the Interim Government, three months after the revolution, lifted restrictions on access to information. This gave Tunisians access to key data relating to public finances, and social and economic statistics for the very first time. Access to the internet was also liberalized in the aftermath of the revolution which led to a boom in web sites registered in Tunisia as information flowed freely on this medium.

Data and statistics had been a closely guarded secret under the previous regime. It was yet another strategy to ensure that the management of public funds and the formation of policies went unchallenged. Without access to basic data on public finances, or the general social and economic health of the country, citizens were robbed of any factual basis on which to judge government actions.

Tunisia’s first law guaranteeing access to information as a public right was approved in May, 2011, and as part of its pro-active disclosure policy, a range of key government statistics have since been published, including:

  • Budget execution reports and the external diagnostic of Tunisia’s public financial management (PEFA 2010)

  • Full reports from the Court of Audit, the body responsible for tracking government expenditures

  • The latest Household Budget Survey (2005)

  • The latest Labor Force Survey (2010)

  • A sample of the Population Census (2004)

Adopting such freedom of information legislation and opening the floodgates is really just the first step. For it to be effective, everyone must now know about their new rights and obligations, how to access information, and how to use it. Confidence in its accuracy must also be restored for citizens long disenchanted with government and it’s tightly controlled propaganda. Policymakers need to integrate it into their decision making, and journalists use it as the basis for informed analysis. Citizens need to exercise their new rights and use this information to hold the government accountable. Entrepreneurs, need to request and use public sector information, to reduce their transaction costs and risks and to generate new products and services.

The World Bank has been a partner throughout this process. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Bank approved a US$500 million, and leveraged an additional US$700 million in loans and grants from other development partners, aimed at helping the transitional government implement its program of reforms, with a strong focus on governance and economic and social inclusion.

Beyond financial support, the Bank has also offered its expertise and vast global experience as a guide in tackling the next critical stage. For Fabian Seiderer, a World Bank Senior Public Sector Management Specialist, the passage of the freedom of information law was only the beginning: “We are now working with the government and key stakeholders to put in place practical rules and regulations for the effective implementation of this new right, which constitutes the foundation of an open government.”

A Regional Seminar

Along with assisting in building and refining the legal architecture governing access to information, the Bank has also helped meet the challenge of educating both government officials and civil society on their new rights and responsibilities, notably through a regional seminar in late March.

The regional seminar, hosted by the new government, with support from the Bank and the European Commission, was an opportunity for the 200 participants to exchange views and to learn from the practical experiences of international experts from Egypt, France, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco and Slovenia. Opened by Inger Andersen, the Bank’s Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, the seminar helped raise awareness among Tunisians about their new rights and obligations and provided specific advice on the implementation of these transformational policies.

It also included encounters between civil society groups and government officials, to initiate a dialogue on how their relationship will evolve within this new environment.

As with all reforms, the results will not be immediate. Changing ingrained habits and rebuilding trust is a long term project.

This became especially clear during a round table hosted by the World Bank earlier in March that brought together Tunisian journalists with Canadian expert on access to information Toby Mendel from the Centre for Law and Democracy. Journalists were concerned about their ability to judge the accuracy of public data, and to monitor government decisions on what is released and what is withheld. Similarly, a recent Bank-supported survey of 100 business people on the economic impact of public sector information, confirmed their interest but also their skepticism about a swift behavioral change of their public administration.

The new laws and policies will have to accumulate some visible benefits before confidence is fully restored and trust established. This may take some time. Tunisia’s next revolution towards an open government will be a slower one, but the society it aims to build will have solid foundations.

As Tunis-based World Bank lead country economist Antonio Nucifora observed on the implementation process of the new information law: “It will take time for access to information to become reality, and to bring a more lively debate on economic policy, but Tunisia is moving in the right direction.”




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