24 Sep 2012

Visible Congress: an Initiative to Improve Transparency and Good Governance in Colombia

Civil society initiatives to monitor and disseminate information on Parliaments have emerged in several countries in the past years. In Latin America, a pioneer project of this kind, led by a group of students and academics from the University of the Andes in Colombia, has been active since 1998 and has by now become recognised at the national and international spheres as a model to strengthen accountability and transparency of the Legislative by better informing citizens about its activities.

The initiative, entitled Congreso Visible (Visible Congress), is intended to help citizens “become pro-active, participative and […] have arguments to demand accountability from their representatives”, explained one of the project’s administrators in an interview published on Technology for Transparency Network website.

The initiative first started with a campaign preceding the congressional elections. This initial stage was labelled “Visible Candidates” and provided information on the professional record of the candidates for Congress, prior to the 1998 elections. The Congress of Colombia is bicameral, composed by the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, the members of both chambers being elected for four-year terms by popular vote. At the time citizens were disappointed by politicians, as “the country was experiencing its biggest political and electoral crisis in recent history”, stated Elisabeth Ungar, founder and former director of Congreso Visible, in an interview to the World Movement of Democracy. Therefore, it was essential for citizens to have access to adequate information about the candidates, in order to take an informed decision.

Nowadays, Congreso Visible provides up-to-date information on the profiles of candidates and members of Congress (up to 1859 profiles), as well as about the legislative process and political parties. Recently it also launched a public platform for open debate called “Agora Magazine”. Finally, another path of action is through partnerships with local NGOs to offer them training and organise face-to-face meetings with representatives at Congress to raise awareness about the importance of legislative activity.

Among the key accomplishments of the project, its representatives identify the cooperation with the Congress. Due to its non-partisan and established reputation “almost 70 percent of the members of the Colombian Congress periodically and voluntarily provide Congreso Visible with information about their legislative activities”, states Ungar. Other important wins have been the support of printed media and the multiplication work undertaken by local partners of Congreso Visible that have replicated the initiative and furthered disseminated the project among grassroots. Despite these achievements, sustainability is still a main obstacle to project. As one of the leaders of the project mentions, finding sponsors at the national level is not easy, as support by the private sector and other institutions in Colombia are limited, and the project has to rely mostly on funds by international donors or small contributions by partners.”

The picture above shows the Colombian Chamber of Representatives and is featured on justiceforcolombia.org.