On increasing transparency, by Cumuleo’s Christophe Van Gheluwe

From Publifin to Samusocial, news of politicians’ abuse of public mandates continue to scandalise the country. Fed up with the total disregard for political and financial accountability and even democracy, the Brussels-based former architect Christophe (1975) launched the public auditing platform Cumuleo in 2009 to increase the transparency surrounding our politicians’ multiple mandates, and rebuild the people’s trust in our elected officials.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c).

I’ve always been quite political, even if my interests mostly lie in the social aspects of politics. Indeed, despite being a paying member of one of the four main political parties in francophone Belgium in the past, I’ve always had my fair share of qualms with all parties, and don’t adhere to any specific political ideology. I’m more concerned with the current health of Belgian politics and its myriad of socio-political issues, as I feel that there’s a growing distrust in our political class and structures, as well as no space for constructive dialogue and debate. And I’m adamant that real social change is not possible until these two facets are achieved. That’s why my ears pricked up when I first heard about the official publication of politicians’ mandates on the newly set up Moniteur belge back in 2005. As a result of overlapping political structures, the Belgian political system allows politicians to hold several different mandates or functions in both private firms and public agencies – often getting handsomely paid for it. That being said, there is today an increasing amount of public concern surrounding the very nature of these mandates and, maybe more importantly, the lack of transparency regarding their publication. Sure, the cumulated salaries from all these different positions always raise eyebrows, but more important to me is the question of conflict of interests. Are elected officials truly keeping our best interests in mind? Are there no overlaps between their different roles? And are they being completely honest about their comings and goings? The point being that there’s a certain culture of arguably indeliberate confusion to be found here, precisely by maintaining a law of transparency, allowing politicians to continue indulging in certain abusive practices. As such, a new federal law – which was voted in 1995 but only implemented in 2004 – ordered for all external jobs and mandates to be made public knowledge. Although that 
in itself was a good thing, the Court of Audit’s monitoring website, with their PDF documents of raw data were, and continue to be, hard of use and frankly confusing.

Information is the foundation upon which a democracy can be built, and enough space needs to be made to allow the public a seat at the table.

So, in 2009, I took it upon myself to launch my own citizen-based platform Cumuleo, putting my IT and web skills to work, collecting all this raw data and presenting it in a more digestible and user-friendly manner during my free time. I now also conduct extra research and investigative work through equally confusing and unclear information in a bid to fill in the gaps – of which there are still many. Just think of the recent Publifin scandal which unfolded less than a year ago and revealed that the Walloon public utility company had been paying 24 politicians – across the entire political spectrum – a total of two million euros to sit on fake advisory boards. The website has proven to be a particularly useful tool for the press, who also experience difficulty navigating through the Court of Audits’ information. It’s also intended to be used by everyday citizens though 
– which was the whole point of setting up the law on transparency in the first place. To give them the possibility and desire to exercise their right to information, and make well-informed choices based on it. In my view, information is the foundation upon which a democracy can be built, and enough space needs to be made to allow the public a seat at the table, sort of speak. In the end though, the aim is to make politicians more accountable for their actions of course. Encouragingly, the number of politicians not declaring mandates is at its lowest ever since implementing the law, which I obviously see as a step in the right direction. Overall, I’m convinced that increased transparency will translate into better use of public money, better behaved politicians and the public regaining trust in the system. By returning power to the people through transparency and open-data, society can only move towards a more participatory and effective democracy.