Faces of Open Government – Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman
What compelled you to work in the transparency and accountability space? Tell us a little bit about your path to becoming European Ombudsman.
In a sense I have been active on transparency and accountability issues all my working life, first as a journalist, then as a national Ombudsman, and now as European Ombudsman. The broad questions you ask as part of these jobs are essentially the same: why was this decision made; who was in the room; who stands to benefit? And when you think about it, an Ombudsman occupies in some ways the same space as that of a journalist. Both hold the administration to account on behalf of the citizens.
The cases I deal with at the European level are different to the bread-and-butter issues, such as education, health or welfare, that I dealt with as national Ombudsman. Instead, they are more about accountability in decision-making; transparency in lobbying or access to documents. These issues also boil down to whether an administration is acting in the best interests of the citizen.
It is also important for citizens to see that someone is acting on their behalf. As part of a strategy to raise the profile and impact of this office, I tackle systemic issues in the institutions by starting inquiries on my own-initiative. This has led to progress in many areas, such as increased public access to trade negotiation documents.
As European Ombudsman, you work with a diverse array of European Union institutions. What’s your “open government pitch” – how do you get people interested in the movement?
The EU is often perceived as remote by its citizens, who, for understandable reasons, tend to be more familiar with their local or national governments. This means the EU has to work even harder than national administrations to gain people’s trust. One way of making the EU more ‘knowable’ is for its institutions to be as transparent, ethical, and citizen-friendly as possible. My message is that this not only benefits citizens but also the EU institutions themselves. Or to frame the message differently: opaque practices can actively damage the EU. For example, it is very difficult to find information about how negotiations on a given draft EU law are progressing in the EU’s Council of Ministers (co-legislator along with the European Parliament). This means that national ministers can blame “Brussels” for laws that they actually shaped, potentially contributing to eurosceptism.
I also point to the public trust gains from being proactively transparent. By contrast, the negative public perception arising from an obstructionist administration takes a long time to dispel.
What do you think is the most pressing issue for governments and civil society to tackle in Europe?
I would hesitate to pick one single issue. There are many matters – such as dealing with the refugee crisis; ensuring an inclusive society for EU citizens; or upholding the rule of law in all EU Member States – that require careful attention. As Ombudsman my job is to make sure that decisions related to how to the institutions make policies in these areas and others are transparent and accountable.
Declining civic space is an issue in even the most developed and democratic of countries. How is the European Union facing this threat?
This is a worrying issue. It is, of course, when the rule of law is under threat – as it appears to be in some Member States – that we fully appreciate the importance of the freedom of expression and the right of assembly and other rights. I think the European Commission is very conscious of the importance of upholding these rights but, as with many issues, it needs the cooperation of national governments to be fully effective in this area. It is important that the EU institutions themselves maintain high ethical standards in order to have political heft in this debate.
As a woman working in journalism and then government, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced? Do you think transparency and accountability have roles in the fight for gender equality?
I think women may face both conscious and unconscious barriers in their working lives. Male power and male intelligence is at times – even if wrongly – assumed, yet women sometimes have to work harder to convince others that they possess both. It’s as though some people have to get through the ‘femaleness’ of an individual before they can see their other qualities. I have had a very rewarding and stimulating professional life, but like all women, have experienced some isolated incidents of sexism, usually in the form of men attempting to dominate discussions or appearing slightly uneasy in the presence of a female head of an organisation.
The #MeToo campaign has been a watershed moment in terms of public consciousness about the unequal status between men and women in society. If a problem cannot be seen, then it cannot be dealt with. In recent months I have noticed a heightened awareness of matters such as gender balance at public events and a greater willingness by women – and indeed men too – to challenge the ‘normalizing’ of unbalanced representation in many areas of professional and civic life. While transparency does not necessarily directly lead to more gender equality, it shows the context in which decisions are made. This can prompt wider societal debate about the consequences of not having gender equality. For example, would the financial crisis have occurred to the extent it did if more women were involved in policy-making?