04 Apr 2012
If you think you're not getting the straight scoop from a Mexican public servant, don't threaten to call his boss, punch him out or boast that you know someone more powerful who will get that info on your behalf.
No, if you really want to send a message to that official, today's most intimidating phrase is, "OK, then get ready for my transparencia (transparency) request."
Transparencia is the single world that embodies a government disclosure policy that has taken root in Mexico over the last decade. During the administration of President Vicente Fox (2000-06), Mexico joined a growing number of countries that made disclosure of information to its public a presumptive right. The law required all public agencies to form a "liaison section" to respond to citizen requests.
The law reversed the standard, if-unwritten, canon of Mexican life holding that information was the property of the public sector and could be disclosed sparingly, if at all, when politically expeditious. Today, experts on government-disclosure issues rate Mexican policies as equal, or superior to United States, whose policies are embodied in the Freedom of Information Act, which was enacted by President Johnson on July 4, 1966.
What do transparencia laws mean to manufacturers in Mexico, as well as other businessman resident in the country?
At the local level, they are a powerful tool. A request for information under transparencia laws can require a city or state official to show that one company is being treated under the same standard of fairness -- by health or environmental inspectors, for example -- as another. Doubts about data? Need for information about hazardous chemicals? Number of police on the beat? How much the municipio just paid for that street sweeper? That info, once the exclusive right of whoever is occupying city hall, is now, by default, presumed to belong to the public.
At the federal level, the request is an equally-effective information tool. Any citizen, for example, can inquire about salaries, expenditures, bids (or lack thereof) on a particular project. If a company believes it is at a competitive disadvantage because of incentives offered to companies elsewhere, a transparencia follow-up may provide just the smoking gun.
What's more, virtually every kind of request can be done from a desk.
Websites of virtually all government entities have transparencia sections providing step-by-step instructions on how to make a request. A visit to the government transparencia bureau full website provides a crash-course in what (not) to do. A more limited but still thorough guideline to Mexican public information rules and regulations is available in English.
Not every question is going to be answered. Exemptions to disclosure include classified information that could cause "harm" to national security, international relations, economic stability, personal life and ongoing law enforcement investigations. Article 14 of the law enumerates another six categories of information considered exempt. An interesting note about records sealed for national security: Mexico un-seals after 12 years, in comparison to the 25 mandated in the United States.
Responses to transparencia requests must be received within 20 working days and delivery of any documents must be done within 10 more working days. Requests and the government’s response must themselves be public, and agencies must make the resulting documents accessible. No fees may be charged for searches, though government can charge actual costs for reproduction and delivery of documents.
The law favors the citizens' right-to-know at every turn. Another demonstration of that is what's called "positiva ficta," which holds that an agency's failure to respond is to be considered acceptance of a request. That, in turn, sets in motion a process with an expedited deadline process. Appeals are taken into account, as well. Article 60 of the law provides renewed opportunities to challenge an agency’s decision to withhold information after one year has passed since the original decision.
Beyond the issues of right-to-know, the law also aims to change the public's attitudes toward government, requiring in school curricula that students be taught about the role of government and their rights to information. Over the last couple of decades the country has made great strides in making its society a more transparent one. This has and will continue to be of benefit to manufacturers in Mexico, other and all types of businesses, as well at to private citizens.