In recent years there has been one critical instrument to making governments more responsive to citizens in how they provide services – the right to information. Applying this requires governments to either volunteer information or provide it when demanded. This is a significant step toward good governance.
More than 100 countries have right to information laws. However, experiences in Asia show that mere enactment is hardly sufficient to change the ways of governments. What is critical is the active role of the relevant agency tasked with ensuring that the law is fully operational. For instance, India shows that this leadership role is for the right to information to yield positive outcomes. There are two key lessons in the application of the right to information law.
Appropriate information management is critical. The onus is on the public authority concerned to provide reliable and consistent data. In India, the chief information commissioner solicits reports from all public authorities in a prescribed pro forma and posts reports online. Every public authority is required to submit four quarterly returns per year for assessment of its performance, and those who fail to do so even for a single quarter are treated as defaulters. Public authorities should have in place—and properly maintain—an updated system of maintenance and reporting of the relevant data.
This system has not generally received much attention in the discussion on right to information laws. While awareness raising and capacity building activities continue on the demand and supply sides, there is very little support for back-end operations such as preparation for generation, storage, and retrieval of information. Information management is a major concern and, unless prioritized, it will create implementation delays, especially when the demand pattern matures and people start to seek very specific information.
Record-keeping procedures need revamping to respond swiftly to requests for information from the public. In developing countries, most public information officers struggle to do so within the stipulated time period due poor training and inadequate record management procedures. This situation may be further aggravated by the lack of enabling infrastructure like computers, scanners, Internet connectivity, photocopiers, etc. Isolated information technology solutions are available in many Asian countries, but these systems are generally restricted to tracking the status of pending applications.
It pays to invest in raising long-term awareness. Information laws have empowered citizens to seek information from public authorities, making the government more accountable and responsible. Unlike some non-regional countries which took several years to operationalize the law, it took many Asian countries only a few months. This is not enough time to change the mindset of the people in government, create the necessary infrastructure, develop new processes, and build capacity to deliver information as now mandated by law, leading to several implementation issues that need to be properly addressed.
Publicity about information laws and their provisions is critical. Generally, in poor countries, awareness is still low, especially among women, the rural population, and marginalized groups. Interestingly enough, citizens and disadvantaged communities tend to be significantly more aware of government schemes focused on socioeconomic development than their own right to information. In a 2011 study by an NGO in Bangladesh, more than 75% of respondents identified inadequate publicity of the law as the biggest challenge in accessing information. Indeed, a clear indication of the slow progress of the law in Bangladesh is the fact that by 2014 the Information Commission only received about 700 complaints, an insignificant number given it was over 5 years since the law was passed. By any account, this number is very small in a country with a population of over 150 million.
One possible explanation is that most government organizations—and sometimes NGOs too—are used to doing things in a secretive way, which leads to concentration of power and widening of discretion, both ingredients of poor and unaccountable governance. For example, the 1923 Official Secrets Act in Bangladesh effectively constrains the bureaucracy from sharing information freely. NGOs and civil society, though, are crucial to publicizing the usage of the law. The Bangladesh government, in collaboration with the Manusher Jonno Foundation, has incorporated the right to information in the civil service training course.
Other constraints are exemptions and harassment. In many Asian countries there are exemptions to the law, and in the case of Bangladesh the Right to Information Forum reported in 2012 that almost 3 out of 10 information requests were not honored due to exemptions. Likewise, citizens are often subject to harassment when seeking information they are entitled to by having to visit the information provider’s office multiple times due to failure by the designated officers to produce information within the stipulated time. Most information seekers are professionals like journalists, lawyers, environmentalists, NGO workers, retired government officials, or businessmen, which demonstrates that simple enactment of information laws is not enough to empower marginalized people. There is a need for more proactive measures to help reap the benefits of their right to information.
Although many countries have incorporated the right to information into their domestic legislation, the free flow of information is still restricted. Enactment is not enough, as we need a strong civil society to create effective demand for information as well as a change in the culture and attitude of the government. Seeking information through the law is just the beginning of a journey to establish truth and/or justice for citizens. From a marginalized individual’s deprivation of an entitlement to corruption allegations in major national infrastructural projects, the right to information can produce results, and help establish good governance.