MAASTRICHT. How transparent are national and local governments really? That is what the students participating in the Marble project ‘Transparency’ wondered last year. Each of them focused on a subject from their own perspective.
Rannveig van Iterson, graduate of European Studies, looked together with Lene Tolksdorf into the influence of anti-corruption agencies such as OLAF on the transparency of governments. OLAF is an independent entity within the European Commission that investigates fraud with EU funds, corruption and serious misconduct within European institutes. The idea is that the more open a government is, the less corruption there will be.
“First we had to think of a way to investigate that,” says Van Iterson. “So in the beginning we mainly looked at research methods. It was a real challenge, because it was so complicated.” It became much clearer when the students were able to interview two OLAF employees. “They gave us a lot of background information about how they work and what they do exactly.” In addition, the students ploughed through all annual reports of OLAF and old reports on corruption.
Eventually it appeared that it was difficult to draw a definite conclusion along the lines of ‘openness has increased by a certain percentage’. “But we can say that these types of agencies do help, just by existing. They send out a signal: corruption is not acceptable and we will do everything we can to fight it. In the end, I learned a great deal from this project and it was really cool.”
Isabelle De Coninck had a different focus: local government. Together with Laura Förste, a German fellow-student at European Studies, she investigated the degree of transparency within the cities of Hamburg and Antwerp. “We went through all kinds of communication from the city councils to their citizens. So documents, letters, information on the website, et cetera.”
De Coninck looked at a number of factors, such as accessibility, but also the comprehensibility of documents. The latter is an area where improvements can be made. “I looked at things from my own perspective: do I understand what this says? The context is often missing. If there is a new regulation and you want to inform people about that, then you have to explain the reason why the regulation has been changed and what its use is.”
Putting everything online also has disadvantages. “The ‘brainless' digitalising of documents is not an efficient way to reach citizens. Governments publish far too much information, which causes the context and structure to be lost. Other forms of communication get squashed. Citizens are being approached less actively: if they want to know something, then they can find it online. You have to be careful of that. Not everyone has access to the Internet or understands where something can be found.”
De Coninck, who is now doing a master’s in comparative and international politics in Leuven, would have loved to have carried out a survey among the inhabitants of Antwerp and Hamburg, to see what they themselves thought about the communication received from their respective cities. “Unfortunately we didn’t have time for that. But I thought it was great to take part in the project. Much more fun than reading dry books.”