Open for Business

Scoring and ranking countries by various governance indicators has become big business. The World Bank alone recently tabulated 17 different polls and surveys covering as many as 190 countries. But the business focus of most of these indexes makes freedom-of-information advocates suspicious of them. Most of the surveys emphasize risk for investors (the largest consumers ...

577125_091111_OpenforBiz5.jpg
577125_091111_OpenforBiz5.jpg

Scoring and ranking countries by various governance indicators has become big business. The World Bank alone recently tabulated 17 different polls and surveys covering as many as 190 countries. But the business focus of most of these indexes makes freedom-of-information advocates suspicious of them. Most of the surveys emphasize risk for investors (the largest consumers of such assessments) rather than the experience of citizens. Some rating firms even give a positive score for the coercive capacity of government agencies (such as Russia's Federal Security Service) to enforce contracts and uphold the rule of law.

Consider Singapore. Even though the Corruption Perceptions Index published by the anticorruption group Transparency International (TI) gives Singapore a high score, the Singaporean government routinely restricts basic press freedoms. A key reason for this disconnect is that this index does not actually measure transparency but rather the perceptions of corruption among business people, academics, and risk analysts. Another irony for openness advocates is that the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers's Opacity Index -- which attempts to measure the amount of foreign capital investment lost due to poor governance -- actually uses Singapore as its benchmark for "least opaque" country.

Fortunately, a group of Southeast Asian journalists, led by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), has developed a more defensible approach to comparative openness. Last year, the PCIJ compiled a list of 45 key government records (including socioeconomic indicators, election campaign contributions, public officials' financial disclosure forms, and audit reports on government agencies), asked eight Southeast Asian governments for these records, and tabulated the responses [see below]. (A "yes" response indicates that access was granted.) Using this methodology, Singapore loses some of its luster, with fewer "yes" answers than Thailand or the Philippines.

Scoring and ranking countries by various governance indicators has become big business. The World Bank alone recently tabulated 17 different polls and surveys covering as many as 190 countries. But the business focus of most of these indexes makes freedom-of-information advocates suspicious of them. Most of the surveys emphasize risk for investors (the largest consumers of such assessments) rather than the experience of citizens. Some rating firms even give a positive score for the coercive capacity of government agencies (such as Russia’s Federal Security Service) to enforce contracts and uphold the rule of law.

Consider Singapore. Even though the Corruption Perceptions Index published by the anticorruption group Transparency International (TI) gives Singapore a high score, the Singaporean government routinely restricts basic press freedoms. A key reason for this disconnect is that this index does not actually measure transparency but rather the perceptions of corruption among business people, academics, and risk analysts. Another irony for openness advocates is that the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers’s Opacity Index — which attempts to measure the amount of foreign capital investment lost due to poor governance — actually uses Singapore as its benchmark for “least opaque” country.

Fortunately, a group of Southeast Asian journalists, led by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), has developed a more defensible approach to comparative openness. Last year, the PCIJ compiled a list of 45 key government records (including socioeconomic indicators, election campaign contributions, public officials’ financial disclosure forms, and audit reports on government agencies), asked eight Southeast Asian governments for these records, and tabulated the responses [see below]. (A “yes” response indicates that access was granted.) Using this methodology, Singapore loses some of its luster, with fewer “yes” answers than Thailand or the Philippines.

WHEN JOURNALISTS ASK GOVERNMENTS
VS. WHEN POLLSTERS ASK BUSINESS PEOPLE

Thomas Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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