Tackling corruption in Costa Rica through access to information

Corruption is difficult to eradicate, both within national borders and across countries and regions. One of the most critical challenges in Costa Rica and around the world is that corrupt actors often operate in the shadows and outside the public eye. They rely on administrative disorder, a lack of documentation, secrecy and a general “misplacement” of papers or electronic records to prevent traceability of decisions and actions.

The need for open government

The Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio conceived democracy as “the government of the public in public”.

Citizens have an essential right to know what their representatives do with the public resources they receive. Public services provided by government and funded by citizens are a core function of democracy.

To ensure decision-making is in the public interest, and not guided by personal or private interests, a system of checks and balances is necessary. Citizens have the right to challenge or debate how public resources are spent and hold government actors accountable if those resources are not used efficiently to serve the common good.

Challenging the legal system in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of only four countries in the region that does not have a law promoting access to public information. Yet there is an urgent need to increase transparency in public institutions, especially in the legal, administrative and technological sectors.

That’s why in 2017, as part of Costa Rica’s second national action plan for Open Government, our chapter, Costa Rica Integra advocated for government leaders to prioritise two specific commitments:

  1. A law to promote transparency and access to information. This law would provide a framework for effective access to public information and promote a culture of transparency in public services.  
  2. An executive decree to promote transparency and access to information. An executive order, enforced by the Ministry of Communication, would help establish good practices within institutions to facilitate better access to information. This includes creating follow-up mechanisms and proper monitoring and evaluation.

An executive order for transparency

The executive decree, which went into effect in 2018, requires public entities to create a new email system to process requests for information from citizens. The system helps consolidate requests for information for those handling them.

In addition, the executive decree establishes transparency as an obligation rather than a voluntary option. For example, under the decree, government entities are obliged to publish specific information, with sanctions if they don’t comply.

This is an important first step and reaffirms a need for public authorities and entities not covered by these regulations to establish them internally.

The case for a single transparency system

In Costa Rica, a single platform or transparency portal for the entire public sector would greatly benefit its citizens. The proposed law to improve access to public information would help establish this.  

A national portal, which drives users to a single website and automatically links to their entity of interest, would help citizens make effective information requests. The same platform could provide timely electronic responses, as well as a pathway for citizens to follow-up or file a complaint in the case of a delay or unjustified denial of information.

One year later: are improvements working?

In late 2018, Costa Rica Integra, in partnership with the School of Public Administration at the University of Costa Rica, conducted a study to determine the level of effective compliance of some of the most important aspects regulated by the executive decree.

Unfortunately, the study found that significant barriers still exist to prevent access to public information:

  • In the vast majority of the 112 institutions studied, the findings show that a third of staff or access to information officers, have not yet been appointed.
  • Only one of 112 public entities fully complies with its transparency obligations.
  • Public officials and citizens receive little training about their respective obligations and rights, highlighting there is still a long way to go in creating a culture of openness.

A need for follow-up and training

This year, Costa Rica Integra plans to reach out to the public institutions covered in the study about their specific plans of action for improvement. We will also conduct a second study to measure compliance and gauge additional progress.

In addition, in conjunction with the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, we plan to provide training to information officers so that they may become true promoters and educators of this issue.

At the same time, we plan to train citizen groups and communities on how to better understand their rights and provide guidance on how to make effective access to information requests.

Challenges and next steps

In the coming years, improving public access to information will be critical in the fight against corruption in Costa Rica. Enhancing transparency and accountability in government will go a long way in reducing opportunities for corruption among public actors.

However, although laws and executive orders to promote access to information are important first steps, they are not enough. This is particularly true if there is little enforcement, few resources for oversight, a lack of training and capacity and little awareness among citizens, civil society organization and media about how to exercise their rights.

As James Madison said almost 100 years ago, “A people who want to be sovereign must seek the power that knowledge facilitates”. This is as true today as it was then.

This blog is part of a 25th anniversary series showcasing anti-corruption efforts from chapters around the Transparency International movement.