A successful first year – how Transparencia launched with a splash

A year ago, we helped Belgian group Anticor launch the Alaveteli site for Belgium, Transparencia.be, and so far it’s been an incredible success. Since launch, the site’s had almost 60,000 visitors and over 375,000 page views— that’s unusually high for an FOI site in its infancy — and they’ve even brought about a change in local FOI law. So how exactly have Anticor achieved so much in such a short time?

We chatted to Claude, a key member of the Transparencia team, to learn more, and the first thing we discovered was that the stellar visitor numbers were actually news to him. That might give us a clue as to one factor in their success: they’ve been far too busy to check their site analytics!

Fortunately we keep track of traffic on all our partners’ sites (where we have permission to do so), and we were glad to be able to pass on the good news. That done, we were keen to ask what exactly brought so many people to the site — and to see what tips other Alaveteli sites might be able to pick up so that they can enjoy the same level of success.

Planting stories — and finding new volunteers

Knowing that the media can be the quickest route to widespread recognition, Transparencia’s first priority after launch was to get some press coverage, and they took a very proactive approach. We all know that Freedom of Information can be a useful tool for journalists — but why wait for them to make their own requests when possible stories are already ripe for the picking?

The Transparencia team already had data that pointed towards the Chief of Cabinet in Brussels possibly diverting public money to his own NGO. They pitched the story to national newspapers, but found that it was a local paper which was keen to pick it up, and which had the time and inclination to investigate enough to discover that the allegations were true.

Learning that the official in question was about to resign, the regional publication hurriedly put the story out, gaining a lot of interest: the nationals certainly picked the story up then! So pleased was the editor with the splash his paper had made, that he set up a deal with Transparencia: they’d provide four exclusive tip-offs, and in return he’d link back to the website within the resulting stories.

Transparencia asked that the page linked to was that of their volunteer form, resulting in more public interest and — of just as much value to them as they grew in ambition — an influx of new volunteers to their team, volunteers who are still very active today.

The team now consists of 10 people: five French-speaking and five Dutch-speaking volunteers, plus another 10-15 who help from time to time. Because Transparencia weren’t expecting this windfall of team members, they’re still on the back foot a bit, and their next move is to put a better structure in place to maximise everyone’s efficiency.

Creating a consortium

This story in the press represented an early success. As Transparencia were to learn, however, it is rare for journalists to work alone on stories of corruption: they like to keep good relationships with politicians to maintain this vital source of information.

Put journalists together in a group, however, and this reluctance can be overcome. And so Transparencia established the ‘Brussels Papers’ consortium, bringing together seven Belgian media outlets to work together on transparency issues, using the website as a source of data for their stories.

The consortium meets monthly — when we spoke, Claude had just come from their latest meeting — and currently, they’re working to uncover and publish a list of all politicians’ jobs and salaries, including any side jobs: information that’s supposed to already be in the public domain, but isn’t.

This work comes against the emergence of several recent scandals concerning politicians who retain a job or ad-hoc paid work outside their parliamentary position. Between now and the elections scheduled for Belgium next year, they’ll be focusing on making requests to a different institution each week via the Transparencia site, making for a steady stream of high-interest news stories. Anticor also publishes the data on their site Cumuleo.

Public interest requests

By law, asbestos records for public buildings are supposed to be published annually. It’s another area where the system has failed in Belgium: it just hasn’t been happening — in some cases the registers haven’t been updated since as far back as 2002.

So Transparencia lodged multiple requests for the registers. In response, some public authorities actually hired contractors to update their registers as they’re so out of date. However, still no registers have been released in response to the Transparencia FOI requests. Some authorities claim that if the public knew where asbestos was, they could use it to harm other people, an excuse that doesn’t hold much water.

In another buildings-related scandal, this one with real parallels to the UK’s Grenfell Tower story, a request for fire safety documents and gas/electricty compliance registers of social housing in Schaerbeek was made. Three months later there was a fatal fire in one of the buildings.

The request was referred to in a news article about the fire, to highlight that residents had had prior safety concerns, and this led to a rush of calls to Transparencia, asking how to request documents on construction in their own neighbourhoods. Transparencia have been happy to give what guidance they can, given the limitations of their team.

Reaching out to local groups

So the press have been instrumental in Transparencia’s rise — but there have been grassroots initiatives too, where they’ve been able to communicate directly with citizens.

One simple strategy that’s paid off very well for Transparencia (and which any other Alaveteli site owner could easily copy) has been encouraging the formation of small local groups and showing them what can be done with FOI.

The organisation put a generalised call out on their Facebook page, asking ‘would you like to keep tabs on local government?’, and this resulted in the setting up of a handful of ‘Transparencia watchdog groups’, as Claude describes them.

These small groups, based in Charleroi, Liège and Verviers, campaign on issues in their own community, and the Verviers group has even picked up some media coverage of its own. The Liège group, meanwhile, have set up their own Facebook page.

Not everything was managed through Facebook: the team has travelled to run many face-to-face workshops with several groups, and plans to do more. Such personal contact means they can ask the participants what issues they care about — in one case, police surveillance — and then show them how to compose the FOI requests that will help them in their cause.

They also teach local groups how to appeal to the commission if requests aren’t answered, and help them with appeals.

Request widgets

Whilst looking at Transparencia’s Google Analytics, we discovered that a very large amount of traffic is coming to the site from request widgets on this local blog (see the widgets on the right-hand side under ‘Transparencia’). A request widget is a piece of HTML that can be embedded into websites or blogs, that displays the title and link to a particular request which people can click on to show that they also want that information.

Widgets are a great way for users of Alaveteli sites to promote their requests and to get support, and in this case it’s also a great way of getting more traffic to the site in general. Widgets are only available on Alaveteli sites that enable them; this example shows that enabling them can be well worth it.

Clarifying the FOI landscape

Although Belgium has had an Access to Information law in place since 1994, the process is not well known and there’s a particular lack of knowledge around appeals. Even investigative journalists are not well versed in the system, and in some cases civil servants themselves are wrongly informed.

That all becomes slightly less surprising when you realise that the Information Commission of the Brussels region doesn’t even have its own website.

What do you do in such circumstances? Well, it’s a bit cheeky, but Anticor actually made their own version of the website the region was so sorely missing.

They published advice on how to appeal, contact details to send appeals to, and they even created an email address for the Information Commission: it allows users to send an appeal, which it routes to the private email addresses of the public servants responsible.

The site also publishes all decisions from the commission dating back to 1995, which they obtained simply by asking (perhaps ironically, the commission is not subject to FOI law itself, so that wasn’t a route by which to obtain this data).

The result of this work? Appeals to the commissioner have gone up fivefold.

Making the FOI process clearer doesn’t necessarily bring more users, but it certainly helps prevent people from being put off, and may also help to normalise the whole area.

Getting the law changed

Bringing about a change in the law is a pretty good achievement in the first year of a site’s existence, so how was it managed? Well, through a combination of luck, good timing and persistence.

It began with contact from an MP, a member of the Dutch-speaking socialist party who was keen to push for greater transparency and access to information in the Brussels region.

After a brainstorming workshop, it was decided to produce a written statement for all political parties to sign up to, with a commitment to improve the law. This declaration was prepared and sent around the various parties by email. It pushed for the following reforms:

  • Decisions from the Information Commission to be legally binding
  • Members of the Information Commission to be totally independent of any political party
  • Any public decision (and documents associated with it) to be published online within five days of the decision being taken

The declaration had limited success, however: while the opposition parties agreed to sign, those with big majorities (Socialist, Liberal, Christian French-speaking) didn’t deign to reply.

Onto stage 2: Transparencia decided to organise a meeting at the Parliament building, where the media would be invited to film the compliant political parties signing the document: the idea was to put pressure on the bigger parties to sign up too.

But fate was to play a hand. As we’ve already mentioned, there is already some concern in Belgium about MPs who gain an undeclared income with side jobs. About a week before the parliamentary event was scheduled to take place, a new scandal broke: the mayor of Brussels had been paid for attending meetings of a homelessness agency without providing the required proof that such meetings ever took place. The mayor resigned. It was a classic example of how transparency laws could have prevented corruption.

Transparencia seized the opportunity, using Facebook and email to encourage Transparencia users to get involved with the meeting in Parliament and to put pressure on their politicians to be transparent. So successful was this activity that around 100 people turned up to the meeting when there was only room for 50.

The new mayor called Transparencia about half an hour before the meeting to say he’d sign the document, so, knowing their hand was strong, they called the opposition parties to let them know. And they, too, came and signed the commitment.

To their own delight and astonishment, Transparencia say that the new law is indeed in the offing, though they suspect that the authorities will try to stall until the election is over (October 2018). They’ll do what they can to push for it sooner — and with their record so far, they just might succeed!

Final tips

It had been a long and valuable conversation, but before we said goodbye we asked Claude, out of everything he had told us, what would be his recommendations for other groups to try? Here’s his top three tips:

  • “Shoot the bad guy” — if you uncover corruption or wrongdoing, make sure the media know about it and most of all, if they cover it, demand that they link back to your site.
  • Encourage local people to set up watchdog citizens’ groups, and collaborate with them to use FOI to further the causes that matter to them.
  • You’ll need volunteers to help you run the site as it expands, so do what you can to build a community of people interesting in tackling corruption and improving transparency. That said, for practical purposes, a small group of dedicated people is better than larger group of not-so-dedicated people.

Thanks very much to Claude for taking the time to pass on all his invaluable experience. We hope to see other Alaveteli sites around the world benefit from Transparencia’s ideas and activity.

Image: The Anticor team during their event at the Brussels parliament, where all political parties signed a committment to change the Brussels region’s FOI law. (Thanks to Claude for providing the photo).