Public Inspection and Information Transparency: A Task for Only a Few

Paulo Rebêlo *
SUNSHINE Week Toolkit
March 05, 2008

Government expenses — any government — are upwards every year. And the higher the expense is, higher is the trouble to inspect the correct application of public money. If politicians themselves face difficulties in the inspection, it gets even worse for voters and society in general. The recent accusations in Brazil about corporate credit cards, being used to pay private and sometime unknown expenses of government officials and employees, including ministers and the president itself, reassured not only the legacy of a tiny transparency in the public budget, but, more than that, the hardness to access public information nationwide.

The government’s Portal da Transparência Web site, www.transparencia.gov.br, maintained by the Controladoria Geral da União (CGU), www.cgu.gov.br, is considered the “most complete official tool” open to Brazilian citizens. However, the gaps are not small and the available data isn’t satisfying. A survey made by the institute A Voz do Cidadão (The Voice of the Citizen), produced by our request, has shown that CGU’s information on budget represents only 10 percent of the total government expenditure. And within this range, there is a series of technical flaws, such as the cash retrievals in banks by public employees.

Prior to a society right, the access of public information should be a rule for the public sector, according to Brazil’s Federal Constitution of 1988. In article 5, it is stated that “everyone has the right to receive from public agencies information for your private interest, or collective interest in general, which will be presented in the law’s terms….”

The problem is the nonexistence of such law.

Until now, more than 20 years after the official publication of the Constitution, the public information access law has not been regulated in Brazil. Today, there is no method or institutional way to allow a bit more easiness in receiving public documents. Simple questions, such as travel expenses or food costs during trips, are only presented according to the interest of the governing staff or politician.

The citizen’s best shot is still the Internet, a service yet to become widely popular in Brazil. Yet, as long as you have a lot of patience to spend hours browsing sections and subsections, you may gather some interesting data. In the Economy Ministry Web site, the patient citizen may compare last year’s total collect of the federal government with the current year’s collect, for example. There are other options as well, even regarding private companies.

In the Web site Fórum de Direito de Acesso a Informações Públicas, www.informacaopublica.org.br, a default model of requirement may be downloaded and used to send a formal solicitation for governments when it comes to public information access. However, recent indicators show that, except for politicians (when they are in the opposition party), the number of requests from society is practically insignificant. “In travel expenses only, the federal government spent almost US$300 million in 2007. How it was spent? No one knows,” argues the president of A Voz do Cidadão, Jorge Maranhão.

The North American Example

Many countries have their own public information access law, including countries considered to be less developed than Brazil, such as South Africa and Lithuania. The last two regulated their information law recently. Besides the United Kingdom, the most well known case is the United States with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966.

In 2003, the American government registered 3.2 million of requests based in the FOIA. Only a minimum part of that had its origin in the press. Seems to be a big number, but financially speaking — the callus of any government — it had a minor impact. Totally, the requests cost US$323 million, meaning a little bit more of US$1 per citizen in the U.S.

The president of A Voz do Cidadão institute, Jorge Maranhão, complains about the lack of transparency due to the stratospheric costs of the Brazilian government, but also questions the lack of political responsibility in Brazil. “We lack citizenship. It is neither Bolsa Família (a famous social program) nor charity that will create citizenship. What’s the history about secret expenses, national security concerns? We open it or we don’t open it, it’s simple as that,” argues Maranhão. For him, the irregular use of the corporate cards points only to an iceberg tip.

In Latin America, countries like Mexico, Peru and even Colombia have already regulated or are in the process of regulating specific laws in regard to public information access. Surely, not 100 percent transparent yet, but at least citizens get more tools and awareness in obtaining public documents. In Brazil, you need to cross-link different laws and judicial exceptions to have the same kind of access, in a process restricted to only a few.

When Transparency Bothers

The shortage of laws to allow more transparency in the public budget walks side by side with the excess of edicts and legislations to perpetuate the secrecy in public documents. This fact is the leading role of the Fórum de Direito de Acesso a Informações Públicas, working since 2003 for the regulation of a specific law of access. Without it, even the politic outwork becomes hostage of the politicians’ good will.

In November 2007, the mayor of Recife, João Paulo, followed by his committee of co-workers, spent 20 days in Asia. Everything was paid by public money since they were supposedly in an official mission to gather partnerships for the city, according to the mayor’s PR team and to the mayor itself. Until now, February 2008, the opposition demands from the City Council more details on the expenses and the alleged partnerships. None has been given.

As for the society, no one knows how much was spent and for how many people. By that same time, the governor of the State of Pernambuco (Recife is the capital of the same State), Eduardo Campos, spent 10 days traveling around the United States and Japan alongside part of his close staff. His PR team had been releasing in a daily basis e-mails about the governor activities and the firmed partnerships. There was no local political opposition due to that behavior but, as usual, the costs and expenses are yet to be revealed.

The examples are countless. In the northern State of Ceará, governor Cid Gomes is being pushed by his adversaries and the by the press about why he had to charter an unique flight for a 10-day trip around Europe, officially a “work trip,” instead of using a commercial airplane. Questioned, Gomes replied with a similar speech usually adopted by the president of Brazil, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva: “It’s tradition. We only maintained what everyone has been doing for the past 20 years.”

The governor of Ceará also did not answer the local press in regard to the number of people in his committee. Until now, no one knows how many people followed Gomes in his recent alleged work trip to Europe. The ex-governors of Ceará, Tasso Jereissati (1987-1990 and 1995-2002) and Lúcio Alcântara (2003-2006), through their respective PR teams, said they would not comment Gomes declarations.

In the State of São Paulo, until the beginning of the week, governor José Serra also did not allow the publishing of expenses made with the corporative cards that shakes the Brazilian Government in this recent scandal. After the recent delations, he decided to open a few accounts to the public. A few.

Based on such premises, it becomes difficult to seriously believe the official warning of CGU, stamped in the first page of the Portal da Transparência, stating that “the participation and the social control are not only a right of every citizen, but, also, a duty.” The warning proceeds enhancing the importance of “everyone’s inspection of the federal resources transferred to States and cities, …to the health system, to the eradication of childhood work, among others. It is the duty of each citizen to inspect and track the federal government expenses.”

How to do that, however, is the great Pandora’s box we face.

Public Good, Private Need

Researchers and scholars are usually unanimous in one factor: the appropriation of public goods for private needs is a national epidemic. Worse, it is a manifestation of an even greater disease, the lack of control and good management of the nation state, submersed in scarceness of inspection and access of public information.

The adoption of corporate credit cards by the government, in theory, should not be harmful. On the contrary. It was the erroneous usage allied with the lack of inspection that caused the harm and, therefore, the national scandal.

Economists and auditors questioned by the Diario during the week gave a lot of emphasis on the easiness of inspection and auditing since the launch of corporate credit cards, but the lack of control in expenses and the no-limit cash bills helped to convert everything in a scandal of national proportions.

According to the social scientist Ailton Vieira da Cunha, the best definition for the current lack of political control resides on patrimonialism, a term originated by Max Weber to describe a system of rule based on administrative and military personnel, who were responsible only to the ruler.

“The ongoing political behavior does not distinguish the spaces of public goods and private interests. The posture of the Brazilian politicians blocks the development of democracy and the civil society consolidation,” Cunha concludes. At the same time, Cunha believes that the behavior of public employees who improperly use the corporate cards for their self benefit are not far behind in the scale of values.

“What belongs to the government, belongs to the citizens. In a given period of time, a politician manages that belonging, which belongs to everyone, which is a public good. Hence, the citizen role in the public sphere to defend the public good is a synonymous of active citizenship, civic culture and democracy,” Cunha defines, using an expression he likes to mention as the “angular stone of democracy development.”

To him, this current poor-valued culture is a heritage of absolute governments and, unfortunately, there’s almost no light at the end of the tunnel and few space to his “angular stone” in Brazil.

Inherited Culture

New findings have been spotted in the corporate credit cards usage in Brazil. In addition to the nonexistence of a transparency law for the public budgets and public information access, the scenario configures a reasonable opportunity to the political adversaries during the 2008 local elections in October.

The president of the Federal Judges Association (Ajufe — Associação dos Juízes Federais), Walter Nunes da Silva Jr., recalls that the so-called Transparency Project (Projeto Transparência — PLP 217/2007) has been already approved by the Senate and is ready to be voted in the Chamber of Deputies. What is being missed is the political interest.

The law-project forces the public managers to host online a Web page with detailed and updated information about expenses and revenues of public agencies, no matter if they’re federal, state-owned or local.

The project proposed by Ajufe is not a public information access law, which would require more openness as in other countries, but “as much as information we have, easier is to avoid the negligence of the public power and corruption,” believes Walter Nunes. “Unfortunately, the Legislative timing is extremely bad; we’re talking about a project the faces long resistance. It’s not easy to break this culture in the system,” he concludes.

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* a modified version of this article was originally published in Diario de Pernambuco on Feb. 17, 2008.

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