Inca | M. NADAL

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In late 2013, Spain’s transparency law was passed. Prior to approval in the Cortes, I observed that “the culture of secrecy in public administration begins at the top of government and filters down to all levels”. “There is no freedom of information, there is no set of rules for good governance. Spain is known as being one of the most secretive if not the most secretive democracies in Europe. Although the juxtaposition of secretive with democracies is all but an oxymoron, it isn’t wrong.”

The Cercle d’Economia de Mallorca is what I guess you can describe as an independent think tank. Its reports are always worthy of consideration, as was the case in 2012 when a study of the nature of democracy in the Balearics made for uncomfortable reading. This highlighted a lack of transparency among political parties, but it also took society to task for being apathetic. Society just shrugged its shoulders and didn’t much care or just behaved in the same way as politicians did - not very well.

A great deal has changed since then. In this regard, one cannot underestimate the impact of new political players - Podemos, Ciudadanos - in advancing agendas of greater transparency. Society, totally switched on to social media, is way more receptive and demanding. The pandemic has further stated the case for transparency, not least with data that have rightly been questioned.

Transparency has become institutionalised in that, for example, the Balearic government has a directorate for it. This said, it is bundled in with participation and volunteering to form a directorate when it had been, for a brief time, part of a ministry - culture, sport and transparency. A bizarre mix this had been, and it was partially dismantled - transparency was taken away - after the minister, Ruth Mateu of Més, either resigned or was sacked. The reason was, as alleged, a failure of transparency.

The government has a transparency “portal”, a website with information pertaining to, for instance, contracts and grants. This refers to the tenets of the 2013 transparency law, while there is a specific section dedicated to Covid data.

The combination of contracts and Covid - and so therefore also transparency and good governance - was never more highlighted than at the very start of the pandemic. The government had an acute need for medical supplies - masks, PPE - and ordered a load from China. This order was to become a matter for the anti-corruption office, as it had been made without following due process for purchasing contracts - ones of the huge sums involved in buying these particular supplies.

There was to be an acceptance that, even in time of pandemic, process should be followed. Equally, there was recognition that there can be occasions when a dire emergency cannot wait for this process. The principle of contract transparency, while good and necessary, can be stretched and also exploited by political opponents. Which can happen at town hall level as well as government.

If there is, for example, a sewer collapse incident which will demand spending above that of a so-called minor contract (for which tenders aren’t required), a town hall cannot spend several weeks processing a tender for works; these have to be done immediately.

Complaints about these sorts of contracts are spurious because of the need. But other complaints are not. Which brings us to the level of transparency as currently offered by island town halls. This can cover various aspects of municipal governance. Public consultation for works, tenders and contracts are one area. Remuneration is another. There is also general information, its availability and ease of access on websites.

A study by the Autonomous University of Barcelona has rated town hall transparency in the Balearics - information on websites. Of the 67 municipalities on the islands, only eleven score an acceptable mark - five or more out of ten. The best is Santa Eulària in Ibiza with a whopping 9.6. The second best is Inca with 6.7. One, Formentera, achieves a dishonourable “nul points”, as they would say at Eurovision.

To an extent, one can understand that this may be a resourcing issue. But three of the eleven are quite small municipalities with populations below 10,000 - Sant Llorenç in Mallorca and Es Castell and Sant Lluís in Minorca. So is it more a case of an enduring culture in public administration, despite the dynamics that have been evident since 2013?

It’s hard to say, just as it is hard for one particular opposition party to be able to understand why certain public works go out to public information and others appear not to. Junts Avançam in Pollensa have noted that there was consultation for new taxi rank shelters but not for more expensive and complex works in Puerto Pollensa.

Pollensa is one town hall where transparency, or its apparent absence, has been an issue for years. But Pollensa isn’t alone. There are 55 others not making the mark.