Over 1,500 RTI requests from citizens : Govt bodies slow to respond to requests | Sunday Observer

Over 1,500 RTI requests from citizens : Govt bodies slow to respond to requests

The Right to Information (RTI) Act became law about three weeks ago, and, while the jury is of course still out on how effective the law will be in the long term, the early returns have been largely mixed.

Citizens have reportedly made over 1,500 requests for information from public authorities, but the government’s readiness to process these queries is, as to be expected, highly variable. Some government bodies appear well prepared for the coming onslaught of information requests, such as the Election Commission, but others have been quite slow to respond to requests. At least one Ministry denied the requests of those who came in the days just after the Act became law.

Authorities at the several ministries, government departments, and various other public bodies that the Sunday Observer contacted had a clear understanding of the relevant RTI procedures, but it proved somewhat difficult to get in touch with the Information Officers themselves.

Furthermore, some Ministries have several Information Officers, so finding the relevant official was sometimes, somewhat complicated.

Many employees of various government bodies could provide contact details for the relevant Information Officers, but many of these Officers were engaged or absent from their institutions. Perhaps, one simple shortfall of the RTI is that these officials have other responsibilities and are therefore quite busy.

Yet another early obstacle to gleaning information on the RTI’s roll out was the relative inaccessibility of the RTI Commission. The official RTI website has a link to the RTI Commission, but the link does not in fact work. Therefore, it was necessary to do several Google searches in order to finally get contact information for the Commission.

Since the RTI is very decentralized, depending on individual state bodies rather than on a central government institution, it is again difficult to grasp both, the volume and content of requests. Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Karunarathna Paranawithana noted that he did not have statistics on the exact number of requests thus far.

These difficulties are not indictments of the Act as a whole, since the law is new and signals a great step forward for Sri Lanka’s democratic processes.

Paranawithana said, delays and shortcomings were to be expected in the early going.

“We have to create the proper environment for the RTI to work, and this means improving public awareness and giving government employees the necessary skills and training to provide information,” he said, while adding that the Ministry was in the second phase of training Information Officers and other RTI personnel.

While it proved not entirely easy to contact Information Officers over the phone, the real test of the RTI thus far is whether or not information requests are being responded to in a timely manner, since not enough time has passed to measure the effectiveness of the information distribution.

Information request responses

The international non-governmental organization (INGO), Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) made seven separate information requests on February 3 in order to both gain information and test the effectiveness of the RTI process.

After a request has been made, government bodies have fourteen days to either approve or deny it. If they grant the request, they have another fourteen days to furnish the information, according to the RTI law.

Though the law does not expressly specify it, the fourteen days are working, not calendar days, so TISL was due to receive responses by this past Monday, February 27 at the latest. The INGO received only one response within this time period, and it was from the Election Commission, which wrote that it would disclose the finances of several major political parties. While there was a slight error in the information request, the Commission noted that it would furnish all the information that it could.

“This was an encouraging sign that showed the law’s strength, since the error did not negate the entire information request. The law stipulates that all information that can be given should be given, and the Election Commission did their part nicely,” said Asoka Obeyesekere, Executive Director of TISL.

The Commission charged just over Rs 700 for the relevant documents, as this is the cost of double-sided photocopies. As of this past Friday, TISL is awaiting the arrival of these documents.

While the above is certainly an early story of RTI success, the TISL’s other information requests have met with resistance or been left unanswered.

The first rejection came at the hands of officials from the Ministry of Health, Nutrition, and Indigenous Medicine who claimed that the Ministry had not yet appointed an Information Officer and would therefore not accept any requests.

The RTI law states that, if an Information Officer has not yet been appointed, then the head or chief executive officer of the public body will assume the role of Information Officer. Therefore, the response that the Ministry had yet to appoint someone is not quite satisfactory.

As of this past Friday, TISL had not heard back about information requests from the President’s Office, the Employees’ Provident Fund, the Land Reform Commission, or the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.

“We have been making calls and reminding public authorities that have not yet responded, and, though we do not necessarily want to file appeals for the information, we have this right and can make use of it,” said Obeyesekere.

The Prime Minister’s Office did respond, albeit a couple of days late, and wrote that it would deny a request to disclose Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal assets since the Speaker of Parliament ruled that declarations of assets do not fall under the RTI.

This is an interesting subplot, as some, such as officials at Verité Research, have pointed out that the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law (DALL) is inconsistent with the RTI.

While the RTI has the power to make records fully open to the public, the DALL disallows recipients of information on assets from sharing what they receive.

The shortcomings of the DALL, particularly, the prohibition on publicizing the details, were the impetus for testing the asset disclosure capabilities of the RTI.

“With the DALL, citizens have the right to request the assets of parliamentarians, and this request is finally decided upon by the Speaker of Parliament,” said Parliament Chief of Staff, Neil Iddawala. But, this is with regard to the DALL and not the RTI.

What is curious in this case, however, is why the RTI request to the Prime Minister’s Office was forwarded to the Speaker of Parliament. “There is no connection between the Prime Minister’s asset declaration and the Speaker of Parliament when it comes to the RTI, as the law itself does not mention the Speaker’s role in asset declaration at all,” said Obeyesekere.

He added that, according to the law, the PM has absolutely no obligation to provide his asset declaration to the Speaker.

One major tenet of the RTI, and one of its greatest strengths, is that if officials receive an information request that they cannot for some reason fulfil, they are required to forward the request to the government authority that can supply the information.

This makes it more puzzling why the Prime Minister’s Office would send the request to the Speaker of Parliament. The DALL states that parliamentarians are required to provide their asset declarations to the relevant authorities, and the relevant authority for the Prime Minister is the President’s Office.

So, instead of sending the request to the Speaker of Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Office should have sent it to the President’s Office. And it is for this reason that TISL sent information requests regarding the Prime Minister’s assets to both, the President’s and Prime Minister’s offices.

“We have covered our bases with the Prime Minister’s asset declaration because we have asked for it from him and we have asked for it from the President as well,” said Obeyesekere.

Yet another problem concerning the Prime Minister’s Office response is that it came not from the Information Officer, but from the Designated Officer. This is an issue, since the Designated Officer is the person to whom appeals first go.

“In this circumstance, where the Designated Officer has responded, the appeal should go straight to the RTI Commission,” said Obeyesekere.

While it is slightly discouraging that the Prime Minister’s Office responded in the above manner and that the President’s Office has yet to acknowledge TISL’s information request, this does not mean that the RTI as a whole does not work.

That the Election Commission has been compliant and cooperative is a good sign. It will likely take some time before the process is running smoothly across the hundreds of government authorities that fall under the RTI.

The first RTI test, that of the information request responses is ongoing, and the next test will be in actually distributing the information.

After a public body has processed and approved a request, it has fourteen working days to furnish the information. We are fast approaching the first distributions of information, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here. 

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