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Faces of Open Government: Inese Voika

Rostros de gobierno abierto: Inese Voika

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Inese Voika is a Member of the Parliament of Latvia (the Saeima). In this interview, Inese talks about the important role of parliament in open government, Latvia’s progress on lobbying transparency reform, how the Latvian parliament is working to become more accessible to citizens and more.

Why do you find it important that the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) is involved in open government and OGP commitments? 

I consider OGP one of the most dynamic good governance and anti-corruption networks internationally. I have been part of the anti-corruption movement for more than twenty years through Transparency International as chair of Transparency Latvia and Board Member of Transparency International. So we have worked with the UN Convention, OECD, and other international organizations and instruments, and when OGP came to life in 2011, there was really an energy. It is a club of the willing, made of governments and civil society who want to participate and exchange.

In my work, first as a civil society member and now as a parliamentarian, it’s been clear that partnerships are essential for making this work happen. And the Parliament is an instrumental part of all of this. We started working with the OGP contact point – the State Chancellery of Latvia – through a law on lobbying transparency. Sixty percent of the parliamentarians that joined the Saiema in 2018 are new members of the Parliament, including my faction.  Many have a strong edge for transparency and good governance, so we used this drive to mobilise the Parliament to get involved.

 

Why is lobbying transparency particularly important at this point in time, and how is Latvia advancing in this policy area? Could you tell us about recent developments as well as Saeima’s leadership on the issue and the reasons behind it?

The law on lobbying transparency points to a very obvious gap in our anti-corruption policy. We had attempted to do this from the government’s side through a time period of several years in 2008-2015, but it ended without success. There have been several reasons for this. The timing was not right for this law, but since we have passed the law on whistleblowing, which was another pressing issue, these issues on the anti-corruption and governance agenda have started to become ripe. 

For the law we are creating now, we don’t want to use the term “lobbying”, which is seen as an inherently corrupt activity by many Latvians. We will focus on advocacy transparency and transparency of interest representation instead, which broadens the aim of the law and highlights the positive action. We want to be careful to avoid creating rules that would restrict current advocacy efforts in Latvia, for example by creating too big of an administrative burden, especially to small organisations like patient health advocacy groups and others. We want to make what is already happening better – more accessible and more transparent. We want the representation of interests to become an irreplaceable part of Latvian democracy. Public officials in Latvia already have open calendars for public events, speeches and diplomatic meetings, but we’d like to also include these interest representation meetings, so we can also monitor our officials.

We have convinced several high officials who have expressed support for opening their calendars. The new elected City Council of Riga, including the new mayor, are working to open their calendars as early as spring 2021, even before we pass the law. It is a sign of zero tolerance towards corruption in our capital under the new coalition. 

We publish the minutes of our working group, so that each step of our action can be followed. 

As members of OGP, I think the word “partnership” really helps us focus on domestic partnerships as well. We had an excellent exchange with our Registrar of Enterprises that is already holding a dozen different registrars – including our beneficial ownership registrar, which is mandatory and publicly available. The head of the registrar is very willing to work with us to make the process more efficient by sharing registration information from existing databases to avoid bureaucratic burdens that many associations have warned us against. We’ll also talk with the government IT department to streamline and integrate data across the government websites to produce a track record for consultations held about a certain piece of legislation or decisions.

Inese meets with Sergejus Muravjovas from TI Lithuania to learn about Lithuania’s work on lobbying transparency reform. / Rīga, Latvia, September 2019.

Given Latvia’s plans for lobbying transparency and the importance of the topic across the region, do you think there are opportunities for regional collaboration?

Absolutely. I’m a big fan of learning from each other. Many things we’ve done in Latvia in the area of good governance and anti-corruption have been inspired by international practices.

Many other countries have worked on lobbying transparency, and you can learn from them the need for it, the approach to creating the law, and the details of implementation of the actual register. We find that live peer exchanges where we can talk and think together are most effective, so we can identify issues we may have missed and solutions to consider.

For example, we’ve been looking at the law in Ireland, where there has been strong support from those who are required to register and strong communication from the institutions in Ireland about the need for the reform.

Actually, Latvia has a track record of learning across continents. Our now rather well functioning system of political party finance oversight was created through an inspiration from Argentina – a cooperation effort of two chapters of Transparency International 20 years ago. NGOs managed to inspire parliament and involve the newly established Anti-Corruption Bureau. So we know that it is the partnerships that bring knowledge, energy and momentum together.

Students participate in Latvia’s annual Youth Parliament program.PHOTO: Credit: Jauniešu Saeima

The Saeima has implemented some innovative programs to make parliament more accessible to citizens. Can you share examples of some of these initiatives and the impact they’ve had on trust between government and citizens?

Our parliament is very open, with regular consultations with NGOs in a special forum each May where we discuss proposals from NGOs. NGOs are frequently invited to provide their expert opinion in meetings of the sitting committees of the Parliament.  Each committee has appointed a designated NGO contact person.  The Parliament’s communication office has created videos educating the public on the legislative process as well – just a few things the parliament does to become more accessible to the public. 

We also have several initiatives to engage young reformers. We have a Youth Parliament program each year, where interested youth run a mini election campaign and the top 100 – the number of parliamentarians in the Saeima – get to sit in the real parliaments seats, elect the parliament chair, work in committees and pass motions. Each February, school children can come and shadow a Member of Parliament for a day. Last year I had two people sharing a day with me. Schools can schedule a visit to the Parliament, where they not only get to see the Parliament, but learn about political processes. We also participate in Germany’s international internship program, where we host a few German interns in the Latvian Parliament while the Germans host the Latvians and students from all over the world. I’d like to see the Latvian Parliament do this more and grow the program. Perhaps we could expand the program with the Baltic Assembly, an inter-parliamentary organization that brings together about sixty parliamentarians from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia and our partner organisations in the Nordics and Benelux countries.

We will start 2021 by focusing on a public consultation for the draft lobbying transparency principles and will move to the actual draft of the law. There hasn’t been a law on lobbying in the 100 years since Latvia became a country, so it’s a very special time. Moving step by step is important to ensure we get it right.

 

Featured Photo Credit: Anton Veselov

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