Journalists in Armenia rightfully regularly complain that the information they seek that is the most important and most scandalous is kept under lock and key, and no way, not even as required by law, is it possible to extract it from vigilant “guards”. And often needed for analyses and investigations are the financial reports of certain state agencies or, say, data on mining in the country.
What the Open Government Partnership (OGP) programs promise the Armenian public and journalists, put in journalism jargon, “seems like a good deal”. It remains for us to be aware that there is such a thing and for sites to be populated and work normally so we can use them.
The Working Group to coordinate the OGP Armenian programs is comprised of representatives of the Armenian government and civil society. Working Group member Liana Doydoyan (Freedom of Information Center of Armenia) has noticed that journalists don’t have a great interest in such opportunities. Not only: “The journalists’ attention [to the programs] is important also for the public to be informed, to begin using the published information.”
And that, in turn, is important to understand to what extent these measures contribute to the authorities’ transparent activities and reducing corruption risks.
As Working Group member, Transparency International Anti-Corruption Center Executive Director Varuzhan Hoktanyan says, “Of course, the transparency of information as a corruption prevention mechanism is very important, but it shouldn’t be viewed as ‘if it’s transparent, then there’s no corruption’.”
Planned in Armenia is to make the financial activity of a few specific sectors available online (currently, state procurement, healthcare, education, mining, communities…11 sectors in total). There’s a clear timeframe for fulfilling the specific phases of work.
What was the criteria for selecting the 11 sectors?
Hoktanyan says that 7 of these were proposed by civil society and 4 by the government. For example, his organization proposed that Armenia begin the process of joining the Exporting Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), as well as for the State Procurement Appeals Board meetings to be broadcast online.
According to Working Group member, Consultant for Public Sector Reform of Armenian Government Staff Aram Asatryan, when you have the status of an EITI standards–compliant country, “we expect [in the mining industry] from outside [the country] a new culture and new investments and equal rules of the game for all mining companies operating inside the country.”
In the next 1.5 years, 100% of the data of the Republican Geological Fund will be digitized and made public.
In this sector, the main object of journalistic interest is data on the owners of the mines. Whether there’ll be such data in the database to be publicized or not is currently unknown.
But it can be proposed to the Working Group for there to be such date. The third “action plan” will be developed in the near future, for which you can send proposals till April 30 by clicking here [currently in Armenian only]. You can become acquainted with the details of the second (current) year plan here.
Appeals Board meetings online
Investigative journalist Grisha Balasanyan (Hetq.am) notes that “those interested in the sector are not informed in an accessible way that at this time on this day, there will be a board meeting on the case of company X, if they don’t open the active webpage concerning the online broadcast and don’t find the active link to the Procurement Appeals Board meeting schedule.”
Also among Balasanyan’s complaints is that there are difficulties in watching the archived version of the online broadcast. In particular, if you don’t watch the first few minutes of the video, you can’t understand which meeting it is, and there can be several appeals board meetings in one day, which causes an additional inconvenience. And in general: “The information available to the public at the information websites referring to state procurement is very deficient and not complete.”
Other journalists interested in state procurement data were saying lately that following the process of these meetings is not only a good, practical source for analysis, but also very interesting is everything “in its own environment” — the participants’ speaking tone and vocabulary.
Whether these assessments have reached the Procurement Appeals Board or not, in any case, the videos of the meetings of the last few months are accompanied by an obvious audio defect — and that is fertile ground for hearing the necessary information distortedly or not at all.
Data from the healthcare sector
Now about what has been and will be done in the other sectors. A portal for financial reporting of the healthcare system was established (sha.am is the State Healthcare Agency’s website, while pbf.am is the outpatient analytical reporting portal).
Stated in the performance report is that by the end of the deadline only five reports were uploaded on the site in the section accessible to the public, and technical problems emerged when trying to access them. Also noted is that the public was not informed of this opportunity.
At the February 15 meeting of the Working Group, the agency’s representative promised that for the purpose of public awareness, the site’s launch will be organized in one month with the participation of NGOs. But more than one month later, this event hasn’t taken place and neither has information been published that it will happen in the near future. In order to access the data, one can register on the site and get a username and password. But registered users sometimes have technical difficulties when logging in to the system. Those responsible for the site assure that they’re working to solve these problems.
About these sites, journalist Grisha Balasanyan says, “They’re poorly updated; getting information is difficult and inconvenient. Accessing sha.am, one gets the immediate impression that it hasn’t been updated in about 2 years. In the right corner of the site’s homepage is ‘News’ and beneath it are legislative acts (government decisions, confirmed programs), which were from two years ago. Here, the last ‘recent’ report about a government order refers to 2013.”
As for the outpatient analytical reporting portal, according to Balasanyan, it’s almost impossible to become familiar with the reports for the public. He attests that the portal has a Service Accessibility section where any citizen can enter their data and see their doctor and medical institution, and become acquainted with the list of services accessible to citizens at the moment. But, “that section is almost completely doomed to inactivity. Citizens entering their data can’t get the aforementioned information.”
Less formality, more practicality
Summing up the Open Government Partnership’s Second Action Plan, which is approaching the end, Varuzhan Hoktanyan says that in many cases, it seems the Armenian ruling authorities only ensure a formality to the program’s ideology. “On one hand, the government fulfills these and its obligations, but it doesn’t ensure the participation of the public sector that should’ve been. It finally began to hold regular meetings of the Working Group, but it’s not only with meetings that these issues are resolved.”
The Armenian government this year in June will end the implementation of the OGP Second Action Plan. Beginning to be implemented from July will be the Third Action Plan for the period 2016–2018.