OpenGov Voices: Opening asset declarations in Argentina — more than a decade of struggle

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not Maria Baronresponsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

María Baron is the Executive Director of Directorio Legislativo — a nonpartisan organization, which promotes the strengthening of legislative branches of government and the consolidation of the democratic system through dialogue, transparency and access to public information in Argentina. She can be reached on mbaron@directoriolegislativo.org.

“The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Albert Camus

Asset declaration filesIt seemed like the myth of Sisyphus, who repeatedly and meaninglessly pushed a boulder up the mountain just to see it roll down again and again for 12 years. That is how long it took Directorio Legislativo to access nearly 2,000 financial statements of national legislators in Argentina.

It took us 12 years to beat Sisyphus. Now everyone can easily see representatives who declare false information, undervalue their patrimony, have conflict of interest in certain votes in Congress, or own guns, yachts and jewelry.

At the beginning it was chaos. Obscurity. No one in Congress would release the documents so we had to individually ask each of the 329 members of both Chambers. There were other times when together with other organizations, we litigated against the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and the case was in the Supreme Court for four years. In 2003, we organized 100 volunteers to ask the Argentine Senate to release financial statements of all Senators. We trained them with these recommendations on how to contact Senators (page 33 Annex A). The campaign, which lasted 4 months, ended with a presidential Senatorial Decree (419/02) signed by Dr. Juan Carlos Maqueda, Acting President of the Senate — who declared that the documents must be made available “to the citizens who have made this demand and to any person who should request them in the future”.

In 2003, among other organizations across the world who recognized the case, was the World Bank. Additionally, during the next five or six years, the asset declarations were also released — nearly 15 months after they were formally required by law.

After years of collecting the information a new question arose. What should we do with the  2000 documents we had?

Other international organizations had not been interested in the documents in the beginning and we figured they would not be interested in the future either. Looking for ways to make use of the information, our Colombian friends of Congreso Visible showed us how  their alliance with local leading newspaper El Espectador in 2012 had increased their web users enormously.

A little bit more than a year ago, the leading newspaper La Nación of Argentina got interested in using all the data we had. We signed an agreement and reached out to sister organizations Poder Ciudadano and ACIJ — who had also been collecting the same data on public officials within the Executive and Federal Judges respectively.

After the agreement, we started working on a platform that could show in an interactive way, the enormous amount of information we had collected. In a year, we systematized all the data (documents are released in paper format) into excel documents. We organized “check-a-thons” (tech events for developers to find differences between paper documents and the entered data) at La Nación and awarded the winners with ice-cream, candy or coffee coupons at Starbucks.

Check-a-thons
check-a-thons at La Nación newspaper during 2013.

After a year of work, meetings and discussions we arrived at an interesting tool that shows in a simple and easy way, asset declarations of public officers, judges and legislators.

Search engine
This platform will stay online and be constantly upgraded. From now on, financial statement of public officers, judges and legislators will be found here and made public. They won’t be staying in closed envelopes any more.

So… have we beaten Sisyphus?

One never knows. But for a little while, we have persuaded him and all public officials, MPs and judges that this time, the boulder would stay up the mountain. We still need to show them that we are convinced that this accomplishment is permanent and push Sisyphus over to another mountain. This one has been climbed for a long, long time.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com.

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