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Creating better public access to information

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Public- and private-sector experts from Mexico and the United States explored how laws granting public access to government information can be more effective at a recent Wilson Center event.

Mexico's freedom of information law is hailed by some experts as a “gold standard” because it set a high bar: treating all information as public rather than secret. Those same experts agree, however, that legal and cultural changes are needed to make the system more effective. Mexico is still working to create a supporting set of laws for its freedom of information centerpiece. IFAI, the autonomous government body overseeing freedom of information in Mexico, is working to gain more enforcement power that will help it ensure government officials comply with the law. As the law stands now, IFAI has little power to tell a federal body that they must comply with freedom of information standards.

There are still problems with cultural attitudes toward freedom of information in Mexico, too. As IFAI President Jacqueline Peschard pointed out at the Wilson Center event, only small sectors of the population currently have access to information. Those groups usually consist of the elite and the educated with access to technology. IFAI is working to make people more aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens when it comes to accessing information, Peschard said.

The United States has one of the oldest freedom of information laws, but it still faces legal and cultural challenges to realizing its full intent. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been around since the late 1960s. Efforts to update the FOIA system to provide online accessibility have produced some limited but important successes. People seeking data about FOIA might find FOIA.gov, run by the Department of Justice, and the more-recently launched FOIAonline, which serves as a freedom of information hub for several other federal entities. The United States appears to be lagging when its FOIA websites are compared to the comprehensive portal Mexico has for freedom of information data and requests.

The United States is also dealing with challenges in the freedom of information culture. Some government officials do not understand their duties – or choose not to fulfill them – as shown by a recent Bloomberg analysis in which 19 of 20 federal agencies failed to comply with disclosure laws. This comes during an administration that had pledged to be one of the most transparent ever and set “unprecedented” levels of openness.

Mexico and the United States can learn from the freedom of information successes and challenges each has faced. Progress in one country should spur similar advances in the other. This, we hope, will help lead to more accountability for both countries.