09/19/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Making the Castle Transparent

The classic novel about government structures in East-Central Europe is Franz Kafka's The Castle. A land surveyor, K., arrives in a provincial town after being summoned for a meeting at the local Castle. But the summons apparently has been sent in error. The land surveyor tries to visit the Castle to get to the bottom of his predicament. But he can only ever seem to circle the structure without penetrating its secrets. No closer to the Castle at the end than he was at the beginning, poor K. has been thwarted by paperwork, malevolent bureaucrats, and contradictory instructions. Transparency International, if it had existed in Kafka's universe, would have given the village and the Castle its very lowest ranking.

When they took over from the previous Communist apparatuses, the new democratic governments of East-Central Europe brought a degree of transparency to their political operations. Of all the countries, however, Romania was perhaps the least promising in this regard. There was less of a political break between the new National Salvation Front (NSF) and the previous ruling elite. The NSF held the presidency and dominated the parliament. The secret service -- the Securitate -- after a short pause reformed as the Romanian Intelligence Services and, at the beginning, attempted to destroy many of the more incriminating files by burying them in the forest. It was a grotesquely Kafkaesque effort, which was fortunately unmasked by local activists and journalists.

Today's Romania is quite different. It has gone through several political upheavals with different parties taking the helm. Accession to the EU forced quite a few important structural changes. The result is a considerably more transparent set of political institutions.

"Until a couple of years ago, the focus was on freedom of access to information -- access to information in any type of format," explains Ovidiu Voicu, who works on open government initiatives at the Open Society Foundation office in Bucharest. "We have now a relatively good Freedom of Information Act, with some exceptions, but that can be improved. And we have moved to open data. Now we want more from our government. We want not only the information, but we want the information in open formats. In fact, we want every bit of information that is produced with public money available in open format."

The Romanian parliament is also part of this new, open environment. "Actually the parliament here in Romania can be an example of open government because they put everything online," he told me in a discussion at his office in May 2013. "You can find at any moment all the legislative proposals that are going through the parliament. You can see what stage they're at as well as any kind of reports that the parliament has produced on them. There is even a consultation box where people can input their opinions. That's the good part. Now the bad part is that nobody knows if somebody in the parliament actually reads those opinions."

More transparent politics, however, has not made politics any more popular among average Romanians. They still equate politics with something dirty. Partly that's a function of how political parties operate. Partly it's because some politicians continue to engage in corrupt activities. And partly it's because many politicians are happy with a status quo in which public participation is low.

Voicu quoted the example of changing the Romanian constitution. "It's not a bad idea," he conceded. "The constitution is 20 years old, and it has some obvious flaws. The rights part can be upgraded because, generally, the discussion about rights has evolved internationally. So they started to discuss the change of constitution. And the first thing they did was to change the referendum law, because in Romania the constitution has to be approved by referendum. The provision was that at least half of the citizens must participate for the referendum to be valid. One of the chambers of parliament has now passed legislation that only one-third of the citizens have to participate for the referendum to be valid. Even the politicians feel that the citizens do not want to be involved in politics -- not even to vote for their constitution. But instead of changing how people feel, they've decided to change legislation so that fewer people would be needed to pass the referendum. That's sad and worrisome. If fewer people are involved, it will be easier to manipulate the election, easier to engage in fraud, and easier to go in the wrong direction."

The Interview

Let me ask you about the open government initiatives. Specifically what work is being done here on that issue?

Until a couple of years ago, the focus was on freedom of access to information -- access to information in any type of format. We have now a relatively good Freedom of Information Act, with some exceptions, but that can be improved. And we have moved to open data. Now we want more from our government. We want not only the information, but we want the information in open formats. In fact, we want every bit of information that is produced with public money available in open format.

In 2011 Romania joined the Open Government Partnership Initiative. In 2012 an action plan has been adopted. We participated in that consultation, and we were happy with the result. Unfortunately in 2012 we had two changes of government, so the politics just put everything on hold. There was a major political price for the fight between the president and the prime minister: more or less nothing happened in the field of open data. Now with the new government, we have new hopes. They've taken up one of our main recommendations by creating an office for open data and open partnership directly under the prime minister, who has put more emphasis on the issue. We are also working now with the minister of education on open educational resources such as open textbooks.

What would open textbooks mean?

The ministry of education buys new textbooks annually. Open textbooks means that the content of educational resources bought with public money is put online and made available for everybody on an open license. From there everybody is free to use that information. We have that legislation already, but it's not implemented. We also want to create an educational Wiki with additional resources, not only the textbooks, because more are needed. I don't know if you've seen the Dutch model. It's exactly this kind of educational Wiki. Everything produced for students and teachers in the public system is put online. Teachers can work on the content, improve it. We are aiming at something like that here. The first step will be hopefully this year when they put the textbooks online in PDF format.

One of the complaints people had in Serbia was that the politicians really didn't respond to their constituents, that there wasn't really much interaction if there were complaints from a particular district. They also complained that there wasn't much democracy within the parties themselves. The parties were rather hierarchical in their structures, and so the transmission of information even from party people at the base to party people at the top was limited. And I'm curious about the situation here.

I've heard of this kind of problem, and we have discussed regionally with colleagues with other countries this general lack of democracy in political parties in the region. For example, in Romania the situation has evolved. It's no longer a hierarchical pyramid of parties. Rather, it's an oligarchy of parties. The local branches are now very important, and they can negotiate for influence within the party, not openly but behind closed doors. But the decisions are manipulated, and most party members don't have a real say in what happens.

A very good example of how they are manipulated is what's happening right now in Romania with shale gas. A left-wing alliance of social democrats and liberals organized rallies last year in April and May against fracking because the previous right-wing government supported the exploitation of shale gas here in Romania. That left-wing alliance is now in power, and it has forgotten everything about it and is doing the same. It concluded an agreement with Chevron and Exxon. I'm not saying anything about the exploitation of shale gas: I have no information on that and it's beyond my technical capabilities. I'm just noticing how politics is done. Last year they were in the opposition protesting against it; this year they're in power and continuing the same program as the previous government.

Do the right-wing parties now oppose fracking?

No. Surprisingly they are still in favor of it.

And the shale is located in one particular area in Romania?

There are at least two areas, or even three. We are almost certain it is located on the Black Sea shore and in eastern Romania close to the border with Moldova. There are also signs that it might be in the western part, on the border with Serbia and Hungary, but those are less optimistic reports. The more promising ones have already been licensed to Chevron. The western ones, meanwhile, have been licensed to Nis, the Serbian gas company, which is now a subsidy of Gazprom. So it's equally shared between Americans and Russians. Everybody's happy.

Well, everybody in Moscow and Washington is happy, I don't know about everybody else. What about the other side of the question, in terms of constituency relationship? How do people feel as citizens? Do they feel like they have access? One of the complaints that people had in Serbia was that members of parliament didn't even have an e-mail address on their website, so you couldn't even contact them. Whether they responded is another issue. But I'm curious about that aspect of open government.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.