[Article first published by the Open Government Partnership Blog]

Madrid, 17 February 2017 – February has been a month in which numerous high level political figures in Spain have been found guilty and sent to jail on corruption charges, including King Felipe VI’s own brother-in-law sentenced to six years in prison (more info in English here), things are also moving forward in a positive way when it comes to developing open government, with a new political team working on the next OGP Action Plan and Madrid City Hall holding an innovative, large-scale, public consultation as part of its first OGP Action Plan. At the same time though, there is still a legal battle underway, between myself and Access Info against the government, to obtain documents about the implementation of the previous two Action Plans.

It might even be the ongoing serious problem of one corruption case after another, that has strengthened the political will to take transparency more seriously. The governing Partido Popular (PP), which has been the subject of scandals for years, is particularly in the spotlight this week as cases come to a close with a series of prison sentences for people linked to the PP, such as those involved in the Valencia-based “Gürtel” case.

The positive aspect of these sentences – and the images on TV of people finally being taken away to the prison cells after years of trials –  is that it demonstrates that the rule of law is working and that there is, eventually, accountability for illegal acts of corruption. On the other  hand, the vision of a corrupt ruling class perpetuates the public’s concerns about the lack of controls over how public funds are being used, something which greater transparency could contribute to addressing.

In this context, on 9 February 2017, Spain’s leading transparency groups, Access Info and Civio, had a meeting with the new Spanish Open Government Partnership (OGP) team. Responsibility for OGP has been moved from the Cabinet Office to the Ministry of Finance and Public Administration (“Hacienda”) and the new political leadership there is, for the first time, taking seriously the need to create a consultative forum between government and civil society to develop Spain’s third OGP Action Plan. Topics discussed at the meeting included the need to pick open government goals of relevance to the wider public as part of the action plan, and to strengthen participation in the process of decision making.

As it moves forward, Spain will be one of the countries pioneering the new Co-Creation Guidelines, recently adopted by the OGP Steering Committee, of which Access Info Europe’s Executive Director is a member. With the time frames short, as the third Action Plan has to be completed by June 2017, Access Info is recommending a focus on a few clearly defined objectives, prioritising those which have buy-in from both government departments and civil society.

OGP in Spain is not only being implemented at the national level, as the Madrid City Hall is one of the countries pioneering OGP as a sub-national body, representing a city of 4 million inhabitants. During February, Madrid City Hall has been holding a public consultation, as proposed in its OGP Action Plan, in which all residents can vote on three proposals, with a binding result. The questions to be voted on relate to plans to make Madrid a fully sustainable city, the option of introducing a unified transport ticket, and a choice between two options (finalists in a bigger process) for redevelopment of Plaza España, one of the main squares, with great potential but a bit squalid these days. The voting is underway at the time of writing and it will be very interesting to see how many people participate, given that this type of participatory process is something new for many Spanish people.

Fighting for transparency in the courts

Without wishing to end this update on a less positive note, it has to be said that breaking the long-established culture of government secrecy in Spain is hard work, and here at the Access Info’s  office in the heart of Madrid, we have to use all the legal tools at our disposal. For us and other Spanish civil society organisations the only way to get information is to appeal to the Transparency Council and then, if necessary, go to court.

Access Info Europe still has presented 11 appeals to the Transparency Council the body that oversees the 2013 Access to Information Law. Of these seven (7) resulted in access being granted, either fully or partially; one in the refusal being upheld; and three are still pending resolution.

One of these cases was for documents relating to the implementation of Spain’s first and second OGP Action Plans. In spite of a positive Transparency Council ruling, in favour of access, the government went to court to fight to withhold this information. The case is ongoing and, on 17 February 2017, Access Info submitted their final legal arguments to the High Court, taking issue with the arguments of the Advocate General in favour of the concept of “internal” or “auxiliary” information, even when that information has been used as part of decision-making processes and is clearly needed for there to be true accountability to the public.

Part of the evidence submitted in this case was obtained from the OGP Support Unit after we submitted a request using its disclosure policy. More info here.

The OGP litigation in Spain remains a rather remarkable, even surreal, case. What it tells us – as do the corruption sentences along with all the positive developments – is that it remains a complex challenge for open government to take root in any bureaucratic culture, and perhaps even more so in a country like Spain which – just like many other countries across Europe and elsewhere in the world – had an authoritarian regime during for a significant part of the 20th Century.

There is clearly a strong desire in Spain, both within government as well among the wider public, to move to a different, more open and participatory, form of governance. As many European countries struggle with the rise of populism, this must also be a top priority if we wish to defend our democratic and human rights values and continue to develop open societies.

For more information, please contact:

Luisa Izuzquiza, Communications Officer | Access Info Europe
Helen Darbishire, Executive Director | Access Info Europe

Send an e-mail or call +34 913 656 558

Photo: Decide Madrid via Twitter