G’riss on the obligation to provide information – the communities and their “transparency problems”

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G’riss on the obligation to provide information – the communities and their “transparency problems”

According to the turquoise green government, the long-term negotiations to abolish official secrecy are in the final stages. The long-heralded Freedom of Information Act is expected to be completed in the fall – and will herald a “paradigm change,” as it is emphasized. But there are still stumbling blocks and the fear that concrete projects will be diluted.

There are exceptions for thousands of small communities. Official secrecy must be abolished there, just as in the federal, state and larger cities. According to a leaked draft from June 2023, the active publication requirement should not apply to communities with fewer than 10,000 residents. The municipalities do not therefore have to make public information of general interest on their own initiative.

The far-reaching exceptions are not yet final; according to the Greens, “the last word” has not yet been spoken. However, the rumored arrangement is already a compromise, because the association of municipalities prefers no publication obligation, as Secretary General Walter Leiss recently clearly said on ORF radio.

“Many transparency problems
“Many transparency problems, especially at community level,” says Mathias Huter of the Freedom of Information Forum in an interview with krone.at. The real estate deals of Alfred Riedl (ÖVP), head of the municipal association and mayor of Grafenwörth, recently caused a stir. The market town of 3,291 people would be exempt from the active publication requirement if the exceptions come as planned.

Huter therefore sees the obligation to publish as central to a functioning right to freedom of information. “This automatic publicity is necessary because you don’t always know what to ask about,” Huter emphasizes. This way, city council meetings could take place behind closed doors and decisions on land purchases could be made without us knowing about it “until it’s too late.”

What should be published?
Other examples of information of general interest include major procurement contracts, for example in the construction of a new school, or studies and research carried out at municipal expense. For smaller municipal offices, the number of documents that need to be published – i.e. on the municipality’s website – is “manageable”, says the transparency activist, who has been pushing a freedom of information law for years.

Fear of too much red tape
Yet mayors strongly oppose the publication obligation and justify this with the administrative burden that cannot be solved with two or three employees. Huter does not accept such objections. “If a municipality has the capacity to process an award, is it really a big hurdle to put a document online?”

Huter argues that an independent clearinghouse at the federal level could address mayors’ concerns. This could help communities determine exactly what and how to publish. Such an independent information officer, who can also decide on disputes, already exists in many countries, such as Germany. The Freedom of Information Forum and NEOS are calling for such a body. The ÖVP has been rejecting it for years without giving reasons, according to Huter.

Right to information instead of obligation to provide information
By the way, you have been able to go to the municipalities and obtain information for a long time. More precisely since 1987, when the obligation to provide information was introduced. However, documents did not yet have to be submitted. That should change with the planned law. By abolishing official secrecy, the aim is to ensure that federal, state and local governments have to answer citizens’ questions and provide them with information. In addition, the period – currently two months – must be shortened.

But Mathias Huter remains skeptical because he has “heard so many announcements” in recent years. The latest is that, according to the Green Club, the draft for the new law must be submitted to parliament in the coming weeks. A two-thirds majority is needed there. A major step would undoubtedly be the abolition of official secrecy; the NGO Transparency International speaks of it as a ‘key element in the development of an open society’. information law.

Source: Krone

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