This is the second in a short series of interviews with people building and running some of the most exciting internet and democracy projects in Europe.
Adrian Moraru from the IPP in Romania set the BerlinInAugust unconference abuzz with occasional gasps at the uncompromising relentlessness of their approach, which included suing to obtain the mobile phone numbers of all the politicians with handsets provided on the public purse. Below you can hopefully see why they got people excited…
What is the organisation you work for?
Our organization, the Institute for Public Policy, is an independent think tank based in Bucharest. We have a permanent staff of 12 people plus a pool of external experts and part time collaborators that we work with on project based relationship. This external group may number as many as 50 in a year and range from former public officials, to politicians, independent experts, journalists, students, young researchers and academics. We work in numerous areas but we specialise in local government, parliament and the ministries.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
The main purpose is to give people with a specialised, professional interest in politics an easy way to access facts and statistics about the way MPs are working & voting, as well providing information for the general public.
Can you tell us about some of the unusual ways you ensure that your vote attendance information is accurate?
Sure, it’s easy. In our parliament the attendance is recorded based on a attendance register at the entrance of the plenary hall. However, it is common for some MPs to sign on behalf of their colleagues and/or friends. So in order to expose the size of this phenomenon we decided to keep track of MP’s real attendance in a more accurate way.
Some politicians have legitimate exemptions, which we record, be we also wanted an accurate record of how many of them are present when votes happen. So lets say you have 20 votes in a day. If the name of the MP Mr. X shows up only in 14 of them then he is present only 70%. Furthermore, if, say, only 204 voted out of a possible 322, we deduce from our database the 118 who didn’t show up, and add that to their record.
We have used video cameras from time to time in order to combat the practice of multiple voting. This is happens because of our voting system in Parliament is based on electronic voting stations placed on your bench were MPs identify themselves with a smart card (aka voting card) before pushing a button corresponding with their voting choice.
Politicians have 10 seconds to do so once the vote is initiated. Some MPs use these 10 seconds to vote once with their own cards and then once with the cards of colleagues who are, for example, out at lunch. This is a widespread practice.
We have the plenary sessions broadcasted live and also available recorded on
the Parliament website. We suggested that the during voting that a camera record the activity int he whole chamber. We therefore exposed a few cases of this multiple voting, although not much has happened as a result yet.
You also collect information about politician’s travel. How did you get that? What does it tell your users?
We get it through our freedom of information laws. But is not that easy to get hold of. Sometimes we even have to go on court to get it, and sometimes even when we do it comes on paper, not in electronic formats, which is obviously harder to re-use.
What it shows is where an MP went, when, why, how much it cost, how long they stayed and so on. From this we can help people establish whether they think it was strictly necessary for an MP to visit French Guineau to see the launching of an Ariane V rocket, and we can provide the most popular country destination by political parties.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
Well this is not a consolidated democracy, you know. MPs are not as nice as yours. So, yes large parts of the databases hurts a lot of them a great deal. Let’s just say we are not scared. But on the other hand we strive to get the best data and to present it in a non aggressive, non biased way using the best algorithms.
You are good at using the law to obtain information. Can you tell us a bit about your approach, and what information you’ve obtained through the courts?
This is a very distinct topic. We always ask for information via our Freedom of Information act, using a special format of letter which cannot be completely ignored. We have lawyers following the flow of requests together with an office manager and we sue every time we do not get an answer, have our request denied or find that information we’ve been provided with is incomplete.
We ask for a lot. A lot! Usually we fight for data that exposes bad practices and most of the things involving expenses or money. It is here where there is a lot to hurt bad politicians by exposing how unwisely some of them are spending the money.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Tough one. None. I like opensecrets.org and votesmart.org but that’s it. I do not believe in moving participatory democracy online in our life time. Instead I think we should be looking for ways to open up government and make it more transparent using the internet. In my opinion we are not even at 10% of the way to what we can ultimately do, either in Romania or elsewhere. We can think also about real interactivity in the future.
What’s next for you and IPP on the Internet?
That’s it for the moment. Please post any questions for Adrian in the comments below, and I’ll see if I can update this accordingly.