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Hiding in plain sight: Russian ministries online

Government websites have a bad reputation for a reason. In Russia, NGOs have been trying to make them easier to use—all under the rubric of transparency.

 

Alexandr Litoy
18 August 2015

According to a 2014 survey by Public Opinion Foundation, a Russian survey company, half of all Russians use the internet daily. Russian citizens still regard the Internet, however, with a degree of mistrust: a recent study by the Levada Center revealed that 58% of Russians ‘would, in certain circumstances, support the government if it shut the internet down’. (Half of respondents believe that there should be censorship of the net in some form.)

These two contradictory trends, a lack of trust in the web and an increasing dependence on it, have come to define how the Russian authorities are represented online, and how Russian NGOs have responded to the state’s less-than-willing transition to the internet age.

The growth of transparency

The last high profile case taken by Ivan Pavlov, a well-known human rights lawyer, involved Svetlana Davydova, a woman accused of treason for phoning the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow in January 2015.

But while Pavlov has built a reputation protecting people who find themselves on the wrong side of Russia's security services, he has also worked hard to make the Russian state transparent online. In 2004, Pavlov set up the Freedom of Information Foundation, which, until late 2014, campaigned for the public’s right of access to information. In January 2015, however, despite appeals, a St Petersburg court declared Pavlov’s organisation a ‘foreign agent’.

RIAN_01313929.LR_.ru_.jpg

December 2012: Ivan Pavlov and Dmitry Medvedev discuss state transparency at Skolkovo. Ekaterina Shtukina / VisualRIAN.

The foundation was forced to close down, but its former employees have continued to work together as part of other groups, including Infometer.org, which monitors government bodies' official websites for their informational transparency.

Tatyana Tolsteneva, Infometer’s project director, told me that in 2004, when people were just beginning to monitor Russian state website, few demands were being made of them. The Russian government had decided that, in principle, government structures should have websites, but there was no overall concept of what they should contain.

In 2006-2007, when many official bodies were still yet to go online, Pavlov took a number of them to court, forcing them to join the 21st century. A draft Freedom of Information Act, which proposed to introduce global standards of transparency for the state, had been lying around in the Duma since 1993. The law was only passed in 2009, during Dmitry Medvedev’s term as president.

A draft Freedom of Information Act lay around in the Duma from 1993, but was only passed in 2009

This law stipulates that the public should have access to information like officials’ declarations of their income, contact details for government structures, and details of new legislation and minutes of meetings.

Under the old way of doing things, federal laws only came into force when their texts were published in Rossiiskaya gazeta, the government’s newspaper. Now they also appear on the government site pravo.gov.ru. Ministries and other government bodies are responsible for the publication of their own regulations, as are regional governments.

Information on government procurement is also now accessible to the public online. The state’s grasp of the internet developed fastest under Medvedev, and, according to Tolsteneva, organisations that fall under Medvedev’s remit as prime minister are still more open.

When Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, developing governmental sites became ‘less trendy’, but didn’t stop completely. Here, it seems, a generational change in the bureaucracy probably played a role, with the arrival of new people who’d been surfing the net since childhood. Take asozd2.duma.gov.ru, which, despite its rather ugly URL, is a move towards increased openness by the State Duma: this site allows visitors to follow the entire process of creating legislation. And since 2012, open public access to information has become common in many regions as well.

Moscow leads the way in this area: the Mayor’s office site (data.mos.ru) is updated constantly and has an enormous quantity of information for every situation: the contact details of all the capital’s schools; the opening hours of all metro station concourses and all Moscow’s hospitals; the locations of CCTV cameras; a directory of licensed cab firms; the contact details of refuges for lost pets, and much, much more.

By 2014, Infometer had constructed a database of 4,000 official government websites: federal government structures, regional governments and legislative assemblies, courts and police stations. They see this as a representative sample of state internet sites, but by no means an exhaustive list.

A patchwork of progress

Infometer works as a commercial company, rather than an NGO, and the company makes its money by advising government agencies on how sites can be made more open and convenient to use.

Infometer compiles transparency ratings for state bodies, so that officials, while upgrading their sites, can work on improving their department’s image. Moscow’s Mayor’s Office comes out as the most internet-savvy, with the municipal authorities of St Petersburg, Kazan and Perm competing for second place. For some regions, Tula and Ulyanovsk, for example, serious attention to their sites is a way of declaring their progressive credentials. At the other end of the scale, the least transparent sites belong to the police and the regions of the North Caucasus (particularly Chechnya).

Unfortunately, Moscow’s municipal online systems don’t always work as well as they should. The famous Gorod.mos.ru site, for example, allows Muscovites to send details of a problem (e.g. an unswept courtyard) directly to the Mayor’s Office. You take a photo of the dirty courtyard and upload it to the website. I tried to use this service, snapping a broken slide in the children’s’ playground in our yard, clearly dangerous, but was unable to upload my photo to the site.

Other parts of the Moscow website also function poorly. According to Natalya Belova, a city councillor and eco-activist from the Novaya Moskva district, another municipal resource, Active Citizen, which theoretically lets Muscovites vote online on local issues, is not transparent and allows the Mayor’s Office to manipulate the results.

The city authorities are also unwilling to share important information with the capital’s residents. This spring and summer have seen Novaya Moskva, previously part of the wider Moscow region, and now inside the city boundaries for some years, embroiled in a row over a proposed development scheme for the district. The plans were presented to the public as a series of sheets that you have to print out and stick together to discover which roads linked which settlements: it was impossible to tell a projected road from an existing gas main.

Research by Infometer reveals the Russian state’s development of its internet presence to be rather chaotic. Each government body is responsible for its own website. For example, the Justice, Interior and Emergencies Ministries share a common platform, but the 85 regional legislative assemblies each have their own, each with its own concept, structure and design. In theory, the General Prosecutor’s Office has overall responsibility for content, but it’s not very proactive: in the course of a year, Infometer found fewer than 100 instances of the GPO’s intervention when a site lacked information required by law.

Information, or lack of it, basically boils down to the diligence, or lack of it, of an individual official

Information, or lack of it, basically boils down to the diligence, or lack of it, of an individual official.

Thus Infometer’s ratings are often headed by quite unexpected bodies.

Rostov, for example, is the region whose government site displays the greatest openness; the South Ossetia public prosecutor’s office comes top for transparency in its category. The Federal Road Agency is the most interactive department.

Unmasking corruption online

Government websites are anti-corruption campaigners’ favourite stomping ground. A few months ago, for instance, the Russian branch of Transparency International discovered an expenditure of 500m roubles (£4.9m) on a system of electronic school diaries, the eventual form of which did not correlate with the sum spent.

The government is yet to react to Transparency International’s revelations. The organisation’s deputy director Andrei Zhirblis believes that the best place to start investigations into such cases is the income declarations of officials, which are published online. Admittedly, some officials are more devious than others, posting PDF files you can’t open and the like. In 2013, 700 members of regional legislative assemblies didn’t bother declaring their incomes at all.

Some officials sneakily post income declarations in PDF files that won’t open

Zhirblis also relies on the anti-corruption sections of government ministry websites. A carelessly designed or managed section will immediately attract campaigners’ attention.

Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation uses online information in its investigations as well. In 2013, when Navalny was being prosecuted for alleged embezzlement in the Kirov timber industry, Vladimir Markin, press officer of Russia’s Investigative Committee, even stated that he regarded the government’s readiness to publish information about its activities on the internet as more important than Navalny’s activities.

The government procurement system, under which all state expenditure is published online, has regularly allowed Navalny’s associates to reveal scams such as low-level regional officials buying themselves Mercedes and Lexus cars out of public funds.

Nikolai Lyaskin, who works at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, believes the frequent outcries caused by this kind of practice have made the procurement system more civilised: traditional attempts to conceal purchases from the public gaze by writing the details using occasional Latin letters instead of Cyrillic (to confuse internet search engines) are now a thing of the past.

The next task, says Lyaskin, is to force the authorities to publish existing statistics, for instance, on the number of children with lung diseases relative to environmental pollution by district in Moscow, and costly research reports, such as planning documents on the optimum development of the capital’s road system.

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