Access To Public Information:
A Key To Commercial Growth And Electronic Democracy

Conference - Stockholm
27/28 June 1996


Flags of 15 EU Member States

Openness and the European Union Institutions

Mary Preston

Head of Unit "Citizen-oriented measures", Secretariat General, European Commission


Introduction

1. Openness in the context of the European Institutions? Why do we need it?

2. A new approach

3.So far so good?

4. Conclusions - where do we go from here?

Proceedings ]

Introduction

Good morning ladies and gentlemen

It is a somewhat daunting exercise to talk about the European Institutions' policy of openness here in Stockholm. Our official openness policy is so very new, compared to the Swedish tradition of 266 years of "open government" that I feel like someone describing very proudly to the chef of a Michelin three-star restaurant how I have just learned to boil an egg.

1. Openness in the context of the European Institutions? Why do we need it?

I should explain right at the beginning of this talk that because the time is limited I shall be talking only about the three main institutions, The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.

1.1 A new approach ?

When I say that our official policy is very new, I think it is important to emphasize the word official. Some of the European Union's institutions, in particular the one I work for, the European Commission, has always been a more open organization than is generally realized. In fact Commission officials have always been much more prepared to give information to the media and to interest groups than civil servants in many administrations in the Member States.

1.2 Ratification of the Maastricht Treaty

Nevertheless the debate on ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in the summer of 1992 showed that citizens in many Member States felt that the Institutions were too remote. Far from being seen as relatively small and fairly open organizations, the perception of the European Council and the Commission in particular was as huge, expensive bureaucracies staffed by officials obsessed with regulations on straight cucumbers and hairnets for deep-sea fishermen, totally remote from the everyday concerns of the average citizen.The result was at best indifference towards the idea of European Union and at the worst a kind of Europhobia.

The referenda in Denmark and France gave the Institutions a serious jolt and they realized that they had to make a much greater effort to get their message across. In particular, it was recognized that there had to be greater opportunities for the man - and woman - in the street to participate in informed discussion of European issues.

1.3 The Birmingham Declaration

These ideas on the need for greater participation were expressed in the Declaration given at the end of the Birmingham Summit in October 1992, as follows.

"As a community of democracies, we can only move forward with the support of our citizens. We are determined to respond to concerns raised in the recent public debate. We must :

By the time of the next summit in Edinburgh the following December, both the Council and the Commission had come up with firm proposals on how to launch this new approach. An ambitious programme of measures was drawn up and this has continued to grow and develop.

2. A new approach

So I think that it is safe to say that the measures that the Institutions came up with in 1993 to improve openness and transparency were indeed a new approach. Let us look at them in more closely. The list is a long one so I propose merely to describe the five main areas where action was thought necessary to improve openness, communication and information and some of the practical measures taken to achieve them.

2.1 Greater participation by the public

Probably the most important element in the new approach were the measures to encourage greater participation by the public in debate on Community policy and legislation.

The first step was to ensure that the policies put forward directly concerned the citizen. In other words more action on environmental issues, employment and education and less on carrot jam, noise levels for lawnmowers and the water content of chilled ducks. This aspect of openness policy is closely linked to the policy on subsidiarity. This barbaric term, Eurojargon at its very best, means that .legislation should only be adopted at European level if this is a more efficient way of dealing with a problem than legislating at national level.

Regular monitoring of public opinion throughout the Union was increased and steps were taken to provide greater opportunities for influencing the debate on policies and following proposals through their preparation up the actual decision-making.

Of course the public needed to know what Community legislation was being contemplated and it was agreed that the Official Journal should publish the Commission's annual programme every year. It was also to include announcements about upcoming legislation and give a deadline by which interested parties could submit their comments.

Public debate was to be stimulated by publishing official discussion papers, Green Papers in all Community languages. Then once there had been time for a wide-ranging debate in interested circles, White Papers would be published with detailed proposals for legislation so that these could also be debated before the proposal went to the Council and the Parliament.

Another initiative concerned collaboration with interest groups (lobbies) and was a reflection of the growing recognition that the many interest groups operating at pan-European level and representing the concerns of specific groups of citizens had a key role to play in bridging the gap between the European Union's Institutions and its citizens when it came to preparing policies. At the same time it was thought that the dialogue between the Institutions and the interest groups would be improved if there was a more formal framework for collaboration It was therefore decided that the European Parliament and the Commission should jointly create a directory and a database of the interest groups consulted by the Institutions.

As regards greater openness at the decision-making stage, not only did the European Parliament confirm its willingness to open up all Committee meetings as well as plenary sessions to the public but the Council also agreed to open up some of its debates to the public.

2.2 More information on legislative procedures

Understanding the different stages a proposal goes through from the preliminary draft proposal stage to final adoption is far from simple and it was not surprising that this was one area which was felt to need improvement. Proposals for legislation were also to be simplified and made more comprehensible.

Existing legislation was to be made easier to understand by producing consolidated and codified versions, incorporating the original act and subsequent amendments. Access was to be improved in particular by modernizing legal databases such as CELEX which contains all Community legislation back to the early seventies.

2.3 Improving access to documents

In addition to undertaking to try and put out finalized documents more quickly in all official languages, the Council and the Commission also promised to allow easier access to internal documents. This meant giving anyone who wished, the right to write and ask for a document without having to state any particular interest. This right was enshrined in a common Code of Conduct adopted by the Council in December 1993 and by the Commission in February 1994.

2.4 Dissemination of existing information

A big effort was to be made to open up the vast amount of information of all kinds held by the Institutions. The many information relays networks throughout the European Union and the world were to be given more publicity as were the various networks linked to Community actions and programmes. .

A directory listing senior staff in the various institutions was to be published so everyone could see who does what.

2.5 Information and communication policy

The Institutions' information policy widely criticised during the Maastricht ratification saga was to be revamped and brought up to date using the newest technological methods of information dissemination. An audio-visual programme was introduced and information activities were to be enhanced both inside and outside the Institutions.

3. So far so good?

3.1 A long way in three years

I think it should be said that we have come a long way in a short time. Admittedly we have some way to go before we catch up with Sweden but I do not think it will take us another 263 years. In particular there has been a huge change in the attitude towards openness and information policy within the Institutions and this is set to continue. As regards access to internal documents, the Commission is now handing out documents to which five years ago many Commission officials were not entitled to have access. I think that indicates how far we have come.

As far as the initial 1993 programme of measures is concerned, on the whole we have delivered the goods. Consolidation and codification of existing legislation has taken longer than originally envisaged but is getting there and the directory and database of non-profit making interest groups seems to have hit every organizational and technical problem known to man, beast or European civil servant but both will show results in the next six months. Not only that but the original programme has been greatly expanded..

3.2 Keeping in touch

A much bigger effort is being made to keep in touch with attitudes on European matters. The Eurobarometer system provides reports on everything from views on Product Safety to the Perception of Poverty and Social Exclusion in Europe while the "Europinion" survey provide a constant monitoring of a sample of the total EU population over the age of 15.

It is interesting to note that the March survey shows that an average of only 40% of European respondents felt well informed about the European Union, its policies and institutions so we can see that there is absolutely no cause for complacency.

So what about other ways of keeping in touch by using the telephone or E-mail. One of the Eurobarometer surveys in 1995 indicated that 72% of those polled throughout the Union liked the idea of being able to call a free, specially provided telephone number to ask for information about Europe and European affairs. This is what is now being set up. The scheme is called EUROPE DIRECT and will be coming in to operation very soon. It will also be possible to send in E-mail questions on the Internet.

3.3 Openness on legislative proceedings

A huge effort has also been made both to open up debate on proposals for new legislation and to streamline existing legislative acts.

Four consultative Green Papers and two White Papers on subjects ranging from financial services to air traffic control,. have been published both in paper form and on the Internet.

A considerable amount of work is going on to simplify legislation and proposals. A pilot project is due to start in November, aptly named SLIM, aimed at making legislation more user-friendly. Initially this will concern four areas but will be extended to others later. There are also plans to withdraw some proposals in connection with a review on legislation relating to energy.. The database CELEX is being modernized and a new user-friendly, Internet-type interface is under preparation. The Publications Office in Luxembourg is also updating its document delivery system.

When it comes to taking decisions on legislations, it is true that opening up debates in the Council of Ministers is not considered to have been an unqualified success. Ministers have tended to read from prepared speeches and so there was no real debate and media interest waned rapidly. However, at the beginning of October last year, the Council adopted a code of conduct concerning transparency of Council proceedings when acting as legislator. This provided that all Council proceedings should be published including, except in exceptional circumstances, information on how the various Member States voted in debates and the statements explaining their reasons for doing so.

3.4 Access to documents

This is perhaps the point at which to say a bit more about the whole area of access to documents which is, in many ways, the linchpin of the entire openness policy. The joint Council and Commission Code of Conduct on Access to Documents which I mentioned earlier, has as its general principle that the" public will have the widest possible access to documents held by the Commission and the Council". It is broadly similar to the various acts on access to information which exist in many Member States. We insist that applications have to made in writing in the hope that the person making the request will explain exactly what he wants. As anyone in the business knows, trying to establish what the person reals wants is the difficult bit. Another rule is that we do not hand over any document which has not originated in the institutions. In other words if someone wants a letter from the Danish Government they will asked to apply for it in Denmark.

Any Council or Commission document may be requested and the request may only be turned down for a series of reasons which once again are very similar to the exceptions provided for in similar national legislation. One very important point is that neither the Council nor the Commission can turn down a request for a document because it belongs to a category of documents usually considered confidential. In every case the individual document has to be looked at on its merits This approach was confirmed by the Court of Justice in the case brought by the Guardian newspaper against the Council..

If we compare the Council and Commission Code of Conduct with for instance the Swedish system, we see that in some respects our system goes further than the Swedish one. In Sweden documents have to be "official" documents before they come under the access to documents procedure and an official document is defined as a document in its final form. Under our Code of Conduct documents may be requested and are indeed supplied that have not been finalized are but are still at the working document stage. The Code of Conduct also provides for an appeals procedure to the Secretary-General of the Institution in question.

The Code stipulated that a report should be drawn up reviewing its operation after two years. The Commission report has just been adopted and the Council is not far behind.

So how the Code of Conduct worked? Well in the two years up to the end of 1995, of the 142 requests made to the Council covering a total of 443 documents, a favourable response was given in about 60% of cases.

In the Commission over the same two years up to the end of 1995, 490 requests were made in respect of 552 documents and 82% percent of documents requested were handed over. So I think it is fair to say that after a few teething troubles, the system is not working too badly.

3.5 The Institutions discover the Web

Possibly the most exciting development as regards the dissemination of existing information has been the creation of the European Institutions WWW serverEUROPA. This opened in February last year and is now visited by over 58 000 Internet surfers from all over the world every day. The amount of information on this server and on the other servers of the Institutions is already impressive and it is being constantly updated and expanded.

4. Conclusions - where do we go from here?

In conclusion I should like to raise three points which seem to me particularly important for the future.

4.1 Winning hearts and minds

A lot remains to be done not least of all within the Institutions themselves. Although I feel the remark made recently by a German newspaper correspondent in Brussels that "Commission officials are in favour of transparency but prefer to keep it a secret " was a trifle unfair, I do have to admit that not all European civil servants are madly enthusiastic about openness.

This is sometimes explained as a result of different national attitudes to openness and transparency. Nevertheless 9 of the 15 Member States have already adopted acts on access to information and others have rules providing at least for limited access. My personal feeling is that it is not so much a question of national attitudes but national civil service traditions.. My own country, the United Kingdom, has no general law but merely a code of practice. However, semi-official government "leaks" are practically an art form and I suspect similar informal systems exist in other countries. I am sure that in the next few years we can expect changes to come fast throughout Europe, because there is no doubt that citizens want more information on what their governments are doing and more importantly how taxpayers' money is being spent.

As regards public information, I am personally convinced that providing information will increasingly come to be seen as part of the normal core activity of a public administration. In the same way that public administrations have had to take on board concepts of financial management from the private sector so we now need to learn about corporate image, information and communication.

The momentum towards greater openness is reflected in the proposals put forward by various Member States in connection with negotiations at the Inter-Governmental Conference and it seems increasingly likely that the future Union Treaty will indeed include an Article guaranteeing the right of access to information.

4.2 Access to documents or access to information?

Should the future Treaty give European Union citizens the right of access to documents or the right of access to information? The two terms are not interchangeable because behind them lies a basic difference of approach.

When describing access to information, the distinction is made between active and passive information. Passive information is information that individuals have to go and ask for specifically, for instance by requesting a document from a public administration. Active information is everything else that comes flying at us, reports in the media, information booklets, speeches. As you have seen the Institutions' openness policy covers both aspects.

If we look at early legislation on access to information we see that the emphasis was placed on the right to have access to the actual paper document, coffee stains, doodles and all. It was this that was seen as the ultimate guarantee of the average citizen's right to know what is being done by government in his name and on his behalf. I think this approach is still a valid one but perhaps does not go quite far enough. Let me explain why.

After operating the Code of Conduct on Access to Documents for two and a half years now, it is quite clear that the people requesting European Union documents are not average citizens. In providing access to internal documents we are not providing a service which interests the man in the street. The people who ask for unpublished Commission documents are mainly lawyers representing clients, academics doing research or representatives of interest groups. The occasional MEP also contacts us and very rarely a journalist when his usual sources are not available for some reason or other.

What is also interesting is that the Commission departments which provide plenty of information for their specific client groups on the work in progress, get fewer requests for documents than departments with a less active information policy. However, the gap between demand for passive and active information is even more apparent if we compare the 620 requests for documents we have received over two and a half years with the 58 000 people who look at the information on the Internet server everyday. It seems clear that whereas there is an enormous demand for information of all kinds about the Union the demand for actual documents is much less.

Before someone points outs that there is no open register of the Institutions' documents and that it is not easy to ask for something you do not know exists, I do accept that point. A list of finalized Commission proposals (COM final documents in Eurojargon) is published in the Official Journal but I admit that is not enough. As far as the Commission is concerned, there is no easy and satisfactory technical solution immediately available but we are thinking about it and I hope that we will be able to find the resources to provide a solution before too long.

I am personally in favour of a register, not least for purely selfish reasons since it would make my team's work much simpler if requests included complete and correct references but I am not convinced that a register of documents would change the situation dramatically. What I think our experience suggests is that the impact of access to documents at European level is not the same as at national or indeed at local level. Not surprisingly most people would prefer a nicely produced newsletter or publication in their own language which explains Community policy rather than a photocopy on recycled paper in a language they may not necessary speak since preparatory documents are nearly always only available in French or English.

In pointing this out I do not want in any way to suggest that the Right to Access to Documents is not extremely important. Quite the opposite. It is the possibility of having access to the original documents which guarantees the quality of the information provided by the Institutions. There is no better safeguard of the accuracy of information than the right of access to the documents themselves.

But right of access to documents by itself is not enough. If the European citizen is going to be well-informed about what is happening in Europe, he also needs to have a right to information, a right to be kept informed.

4.3 New technology and new ideas

The last point I should like to make is the importance of electronic information dissemination methods. I have already talked about the Internet server but we should not forget all the wonderful opportunities opened up by the new electronic data transmission systems which are beginning to revolutionize contacts between the Institutions and the outside world.

The big problem is already how to cope with all this information. Despite my admiration for the World Wide Web and its userfriendliness, it has to be said that none of the current browsers offer the same search and indexing possibilities which are offered by more old-fashioned database systems. We need more tools of this kind to be able to cope.

So finally, I should like to draw your attention to a new source of information from the Institutions. This is the Inter-Governmental Conference. database. For those who have not yet discovered it on the EUROPA server, I heartily recommend it. What is new is that it groups together documents, actual genuine working documents on the IGC, which come from the Institutions and the Member States but also contributions from Universities, Trade Unions, Employers Federations, Chambers of Commerce and so in. There are also a series of newspaper articles from the European Press. It is difficult to imagine a more useful contribution towards the debate on the IGC or any other way in which such a vast amount of information could have been made available so quickly and in such a user-friendly form.. 30 000 people consulted this database in May and I would recommend you to have a browse next time you are surfing in that direction because I think it points the way to the future and is an excellent example of the kind of openness the Institutions should and I am sure, will provide in the future.

Proceedings ]


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