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FREEDOM OF INFORMATION

Rajoy unveils new transparency law for more open government

Three-pronged proposal covers public contracts, right to information and good governance

Rajoy: “Citizens will be able to find out who is spending money in all the agencies”

The Cabinet on Friday will approve a far-reaching government transparency law that will give citizens full access to official documents and records, and enforce open government policies at all public agencies to break open the tradition of secrecy in Spanish bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy explained on Thursday that the law will allow Spaniards to discover “who is spending their money,” and in cases where someone appears to be getting favorable government treatment “their full names will be released” under the new statute.

Spain has one of the least open governments in the developed world. Compared to other countries in which citizens can regularly consult public contracts, spending, lawsuits and other government reports via the internet, the Spanish government has been extremely cautious over allowing citizens to access even basic information.

But the Popular Party (PP) has made open government one of its priorities. Wracked by a string of government corruption cases in the Balearics, Valencia and Madrid over public contracts, the PP is trying to clean up its image by going public with information.

“With this law, all citizens will be able to find out who is spending money in all the agencies,” Rajoy said during a party rally in Ribadesella, Asturias. According to government sources, the new law will be an ambitious one that will turn Spain’s bureaucratic public administration into a government that is more open and more transparent.

Rajoy’s administration, for example, wants to make every contract, no matter how small the amount, available for public inspection. In the United States, information about government contracts at the national level is made available through websites of the General Accounting Office (GAO) and the individual departments. At the state level, contracts are posted on state comptroller websites and include the contractors’ names and the amount they are billing the local government.

We are going to introduce more reforms because we need Spain to compete globally”

In Spain, contracts will also be available through the different ministries but will also be listed on one major website (similar to the US government’s data.gov site), and will be easy to use, the sources said.

The law and website will cover the information relating to central state administration. In time, regional governments will also be obligated to make data public and readily available on health, education, and social services spending.

Not all government information is secret. Congressional bills and laws, and regional statutes are readily made available on official websites, but searching for them can sometimes be cumbersome or even impossible. And public information, such as the salaries of government officials - routine information in other countries - has never been made public in Spain, with the exception of Cabinet officials.

“In the coming months we are going to introduce more reforms because we need to modernize Spain so that it can compete globally,” Rajoy said. The bill will be a threefold law that will not only address greater transparency but will also introduce a “good government practice” code to curtail corruption and a public right to information statute, based on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United States.

One of the components of the good governance code will call for sanctions, including impeachment, of regional leaders who do not balance their public accounts – a measure previously announced by Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro.

The FOIA-like statute will work like similar laws in the United States and Britain, where the government must give full or partial disclosure in response to a citizen’s demand for records, projects, and some past criminal investigations. Still, the law isn’t expected to be as broad as its counterparts in other countries. In the United States, people can consult who visited the White House, including lobbyists and members of Congress.

The drafting of the law, was overseen by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and a special team that included José Luis Ayllón, the secretary of state for congressional relations.

The public will have 15 days to offer their opinions and suggestions through a government website – a novelty in Spain – and then the bill will be debated in Congress. Several organizations have told the government they want to be heard.

The law won’t go into effect for several months.

Two groups, Access Info Europe and Civic Citizens Foundation, on Thursday set up their own website, tuderechoasaber.es, which will begin monitoring the government’s transparency and monitor citizens’ requests for government information.