UNDP-GEF project encourages free flow of information

March 20, 2009 | By Nathan Johnson

Citizens who want to know more about water pollution in their countries have a great deal of difficulty tracking down such information, as water-related data tends to be widely dispersed among many ministries and government offices at federal, entity, regional and local levels. Information in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) might, for example, be hiding inside any of 324 separate institutions! So, what can be done about this?

A programme established under the UNDP-GEF Danube Regional Project entitled "Enhancing Access to Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision Making" worked with five Danube Basin countries to develop solutions. In BiH, a consultant worked with government authorities and NGOs to develop an online meta-information system to assist citizens who now know where to direct inquiries for water-related information within multiple levels of government. The system provides a contact person, website address and hyperlink, institution description and information content for each of the country's 324 institutions holding water-related information.

A Serbian NGO, the Association of Young Researchers, worked with local authorities and firms in Bor Municipality to establish a database on pollution, wastewater and drinking water.

This information will eventually be transferred to the municipality's Environment Protection Department. The NGO even trained municipal employees to operate and maintain the database.

These and other results and lessons learned are summarised in a booklet called Flowing Freely. The booklet contains recommendations for other governments and NGOs who might want to reach some of the same goals.

Some ways to develop an access-to-information system are: identify key offices and people with water-related information (a labour-intensive enterprise); build an electronic system to link or integrate multiple sources of data and information; encourage agencies to participate and convince them of the mutual benefits of shared information; bring together various information holders to discuss how best to share and integrate data; and include future users who can help officials understand how the data system will be used in practice by members of the public and NGOs seeking water-related environmental information.

Guidebook guidance

Government officials, burdened by many responsibilities and severe time constraints, often lack the tools or training to sift through documents and details on how to ensure access to information and public participation.

Manuals, guides, handbooks and guidelines for government authorities (to inform them of their responsibilities) and individual citizens (to inform them of their rights) are excellent methods to enhance environmental leadership. Another recommendation of the DRP project is that NGOs should play an active role in producing such materials.

All too often, however, the high turnover rate of government personnel, changes in the rules and other normal change means that such publications end up collecting dust on a shelf or quickly become obsolete. Care should be taken that these guides are designed and written in such a manner to be of optimum use for the longest possible period of time. The most effective revisions draw from user feedback, and thus help to ensure that the guides provide maximum assistance to their target audiences.

Two manuals for officials on access to information and public participation in the context of the EU Water Framework Directive (among the four published within the project) benefited from obtaining government endorsement and are or will be made available on the ministry's website. One was from Serbia, the other from Romania.