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Brazil: Internet use for accountability, transparency and civic engagement: What is civil society doing?

Brazil's 1988 constitution presents possibilities for citizen control and government transparency. In the last two decades, Brazilians have seen several experiences of the use of this power to demand better governance, such as the calls for impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello in the early 90s which forced his early resignation. In 2010, the Ficha Limpa movement was created to guarantee that politicians with court convictions cannot hold public positions. At the same time, the Mensalão’l and corporative card scandals have caused a greater lack of confidence among citizens, especially toward the Congress.

Despite – or perhaps due to – the lack of credibility of the Brazilian government, the past two years have seen the creation of a number of grassroots projects that use the Internet to promote accountability, transparency and civic engagement. The founders of these projects report that a number of problems face Brazil in its search for greater social control, transparency and civic engagement. These include a culture of passive engagement, a difficulty in understanding the technical jargon used by governments, the lack of access to government data, and limited civic participation outside of the election cycle. To overcome these problems, Brazilian citizens have created online tools that encourage citizens to demand greater government transparency and citizen participation.

Some illustrative case studies

Adote um Vereador (“Adopt a politician”) encourages Brazilian citizens to blog about the work of their local elected officials in order to hold them accountable. They suggest that each citizen adopt a local politician and write about his/her activities on a blog so that politicians know that they are being watched – and also to create a bridge between their work and online users who may ask questions or leave complaints as blog comments. Zanella, the founder of the wiki, believes that the main obstacles to its success are both cultural and technical: “Brazilian people are not used to the democratic process. For most Brazilians, governance is a synonym of elections, which happens only every 4 years. In the meantime Brazilians have little participation in the political agenda, even if they have a very local problem that involves the government. Usually, when some public problem happens people think it is a problem of the politicians, not them. So, Brazilian citizens don't see a way to construct and solve local public problems policies for themselves.”

He also stresses that most Brazilians still do not know how to use the tools of the internet – such as blogs and wikis – to publish information about their politicians. A wiki was created to group and coordinate participants who adopt politicians. They also plan workshops to teach citizens how to use Internet tools to become involved in the project.

Another experience is Cidade Democratica (“Democratic City”), which enables Brazilians to document and discuss municipal problems and come up with solutions. The main problem for founder Rodrigo Luna is culture: “Brazilians wait for someone else to solve their problems. This passivity cannot help us build the country where we want to live.” he content published on Cidade Democrática is organized by category, user-defined tags, city, and neighborhood. Registered users can: 1) document problems and propose solutions 2) support proposals created by other users; 3) comment, question, and discuss problems and proposals; 4) publicize a proposal and/or problem by email; and 5) create a profile to follow particular topics and places of interest. Despite its short time in existence, the site already has already yielded some results. A discussion about the city of Jundiai, which revealed that there was no public hearing to discuss the municipality's Master Plan, led officials to schedule a public audience later this year.

Other project leaders interviewed in our research emphasized the difficulty in accessing and understanding the government data in Brazil. The website Congresso Aberto (“Open Congress”) tracks, visualizes, and analyzes official data from Brazil's Congress. The objective is to provide official data in a more accessible way in order to promote more transparency in Brazil's Congress. It also includes academic research and basic statistics about the behavior of politicians, such as their voting records. But the founders have had problems in sustaining the site's content because they cannot access the necessary data not centralized on the congressional website. Cesar Zucco, one of the founders of the initiative says, “We have to search the information from all the government’s sites. We hope that when Brazil has a Freedom of Information Law, we can more easily access the data that we need. Our idea is that the basic activities of the site will be automated, and that nobody will need to update it. Our effort would be in favor of increasing the amount of information and to improve our analysis of it in Congresso Aberto.”

Another website that promotes more transparency in Congress is called VotenaWeb (“Vote on the Web”). In this site the bills are translated in a simple and objective way to encourage citizens to participate in the daily life of the Brazil's Congress. Besides simply monitoring the bills, users can interact with the political landscape by symbolically voting for or against each bill. The result of their votes is displayed in simple and easy to understand graphics. Furthermore, it is possible for users to compare their votes among themselves, and also with politicians. Project coordinator Priscila Marcenes says: “Only people who are already politicized can use government data as it is currently shown: visually unattractive, and in a very complicated and bureaucratic language. We created the site to work with data to promote a form of transparency that is accessible to all citizens without exclusion.” The project leaders struggle to keep up with the time-consuming task of translating bills into a simple and accessible language, and also to simply keep up with the volume of legislation that appears weekly in Congress.

Conclusions and next steps for progress in Brazil

The Brazilian experience in the technology for transparency movement is recent; most projects began less than a year ago. The oldest is the Adopt a City Councilman who was released on January 8, 2009. One challenge in this research is to analyze the impact of these experiences given the short time of their existence. It is also important to note that none of the projects we reviewed represent all regions and municipalities of Brazil. The map of the Adopt a City Councilmember, for example, has 32 municipalities with bloggers that have adopted a councilman in a country of 5564 municipalities. Vote on the Web and Democratic City have, respectively, approximately 3000 and 1233 registered users.

The four projects we reviewed use various Internet tools such as Twitter, Facebook, wikis, email and others. Typically they use more than one tool simultaneously. They all have twitter and email accounts. The Projects Adote um Vereador – Adopt a politician – and Congresso Aberto – Open Congress – are supported only by volunteers. ‘Vote na Web’ and ‘Cidade Democrática’ have elements of institutional support; by Webcitizen and the Seva Institute respectively.

Three of the four projects highlighted the lack of a Freedom of Information Law in Brazil. This presents an obstacle to ensuring information on their respective websites. In early April the Chamber of Deputies approved bill n.5228, known as the Freedom of Information Law, which will regulate access to government information as required by Brazil’s Constitution. Although the bill is subject to approval in the Senate for its passage, Brazil will soon become part of a group of countries adopting laws to ensure transparency and access to public information. Cesar Zucco, professor of political science at Princeton and a founder of the Congresso Aberto, hopes that the freedom of information law will facilitate access to data on the behavior of Brazilian deputies, to save the team from time-consuming research so that they can focus on more analysis on the policies in Congress.

All projects have identified as next steps: financing (especially for the volunteer projects); increasing the number of participants (especially during the 2010 election year); and attracting more technologists to help improve the functionality of their websites.

In addition to enhancing functionality of the Cidade Democrática website, Luna and his team will also launch another website to discuss how the internet is being used in relation to Brazil's public sphere. Called Webcidadania (“Webcitizenship”), the site will also examine the projects in Brazil that promote accountability, transparency and civic engagement, such as Vote na Web, Adote um Verador and others:

In this, the ‘Cidade Democrática’ came to create this channel so that governments know what citizens really need. The movement webcidadania is a space that is being created for a number of organizations that work with on strengthening citizenship on the web. With this insight we start talking on Twitter. Those who use twitter can find follow ‘@webcidadania’ and find several issues and proposed actions that are being planned.

Project leaders agree that it is neither technology nor financing that pose the biggest challenge, but rather cultural obstacles in Brazil to transparency, participation, and accountability. The issues raised here – and in the four case studies – are not only technological problem, but political. The Internet, like any other technology, cannot be considered disconnected from the social and political processes in which it operates.

2 comments

  • Carolina Neri

    There are many NPO working on transparency, civic/electoral education in Brasil; however, it is very hard to get their voices out there in. But they do not stop. Projects like Ficha Limpa are only possible to become reality because of work to these organizations and many others.

    Some examples:

    Movement for Combating Corruption Elections (MCCE) – Movimento de Combate à Corrupção Eleitoral – created the Ficha-Limpa (clear record bill) project. They also conducts research in databases to evaluate processed representatives – http://www.mcce.org.br

    Transparency Brazil – Transparência Brasil – Founded in 2000, formed the database accessible on the Internet with information on the legislature throughout Brazil. Collects information, documents, voting records – http://www.transparencia.org.br

    Open Accounts – Contas Abertas – They do surveys of parliamentary expenses, provides worksheets with the use of indemnity funds, spending amendments, application of resources of both the Legislative and Executive – www. contasabertas.uol.com.br

    Conscious Vote – Voto Consciente – Movement founded in 1987 in Sao Paulo, to monitor and supervise activities in the City Council and the Legislative Assembly – http://www.votoconsciente.org.br

    Friends Associates Ribeirão Bonito (Amarribo) – Amigos Associados de Ribeirão Bonito- Entity from Minas Gerais which brings together hundreds of other organizations to combat corruption throughout the country
    http://www.amarribo.org.br

    This information was published at Instituto Brasil Verdade – Promotion of education and access to information about rights and duties of Brazilians – especially for those most in need – as the basis of citizenship and social development, economic and cultural development
    http://www.institutobrasilverdade.com.br

    data from : Ricardo Brandt, jornal Estado de S. Paulo

  • Hi Manuella,

    Good post. Just a quick point of clarification, the Ficha Limpa campaign has been the fruit of years of hard work by MCCE, who Carolina mentions above. Avaaz.org joined on board in 2010, but the first 1.6 million signatures were collected through strong grassroots mobilization in the year prior.

    Ficha Limpa points to the need for a marriage of grassroots and online mobilization, something lacking in most online “transparency” projects, that would have tremendous transformative potential.

    I would be interested to see a case study on the Ficha Limpa campaign, starting with its offline genesis!

    janet

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