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RTI is good, but open data is better

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 2 February 2017 00:08


The Sri Lanka Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016 is to become effective in a few days. The act was gazetted on 4 August 2016, but embargoed for six months with an additional space of another six months allowed for all provisions of the Act to be applicable to all public authorities. The RTI Act is a great step forward by the present Government despite some definitional issues and some inconsistencies in it. 

Open data or more specifically Open Government Data (OGD) is a concept which is complementary to the Right to Information (RTI) concept. While RTI is reactive, legalistic, adversarial and costly, OGD is proactive, technical, collaborative and less costly in the long term. A right to information culture can be transformed into an open government culture, if civil society leaders and committed political leaders take the effort to do so. 

The RTI Act of Sri Lanka has provisions for open data, but we can go further, not necessarily by legislating further provisions, but by civil society always linking OGD to RTI requests or government responding to RTI requests with OGD. The purpose of this column is to explore how.

Monitoring open data provisions in RTI 

In its first OGD mandate, RTI Act Sec 8(1) stipulates that “It shall be the duty of every Minister to whom any subject has been assigned to publish biannually before the thirtieth of June and thirty first of December respectively of each year, a report in such form as shall be determined by the Commission as would enable a citizen to exercise the right of access to information granted under section 3 of this Act.” 

The information that should be made available to public in such a proactive manner includes the information which should be on the web site of any organisation such as powers, duties and functions of officers and employees and the respective procedures followed by them in their decision making process; rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and any other categories of records, which are used by its officers and employees in the discharge of their functions, performance of their duties and exercise of their powers. 

More importantly the Act requires that the “the budget allocated, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on IN-2disbursements made.” As the saying goes in investigative journalism, if you follow the money it can take you just about anywhere.

Given the specificity and generalisability of open data mandate in the RTI Act, The media ministry which is entrusted with the implementation of the Act and the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) would do well to provide all government agencies and statutory bodies with a standard format to provide the stipulated information and perhaps provide one location where this particular set of information can be accessed and compared. As I mention later, the Parliament could do double-duty buy posting such information. 

Ensuring compliance with open data on projects

The provision for information on projects is an important one. Regular Government expenditure largely consists of salaries and benefits to government employees. Space for graft or corruption is in the projects. Section 9(1)(a) of the open project data provision in the ACT says “It shall be the duty of the Minister, to whom the subject pertaining to any project has been assigned, to communicate, three months prior to the commencement of such project, to the public generally, and to any particular persons who are likely to be affected by such project all information relating to the project that is available with the Minister, as on the date of such communication.” 

This mandate too is something to which we should pay attention, with civil society groups or business organisations with a stake in a particular sector, keeping an eye on projects in that sector.

Requesting granular data in electronic formats

The Act has provisions to provide information in a form in which it is requested. For example, in Section 27(1) it is stipulated that “Where decision has been made to grant a request for information, such information shall be provided in the form in which it is requested for, unless the information officer is of the view that providing the information in the form requested for would not be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the relevant document or record in respect of which the request was made.” 

Since the provision is there, it is important that those who request information think of electronically analysable formats at a granular level. If you are interested in the deployment of English teachers in the Western Province for example, the request should be framed as a request for a spreadsheet with the “names of teachers in the Western Province who have been assigned to the subject of English “by school, level of assignment, qualification of teacher and date of assignment”, provided in an electronic formats. A few such requests would hasten the process of posting all teacher deployment data because that would make life easier for all concerned.

Ensuring the right to reuse

Right to reuse is critical. As the RTI Foundation in India notes: “Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to have a law on assets disclosures for public servants during the 1970s [through Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law No. 1 of 1975]. The law then required such declarations to be kept confidential. However, amendments made in 1985 and 1988 [or Acts No 29 of 1985 and No. 74 of 1988) permitted people to seek copies of such declarations on payment of the prescribed fee, but restrictions were imposed on the use of such information for publication or for initiating legal action against the public servant.” 

To my knowledge there are no such reuse restrictions in the present RTI Act and it will be interesting to see if how the declaration of assets and liabilities Act could be reinterpreted in light of the RTI Act.

OGD should begin in Parliament

Question time in Parliamentary tradition gives the Members of Parliament the opportunity to ask questions from Government Ministers (including the Prime Minister) and the latter are obliged to answer. 

The order papers of December 2016, for example, has the following questions from Bimal Rathnayake to the Minister of Foreign Affairs as follows: (a) Will the Minister inform this House— (i) separately the names, dates of birth, addresses in Sri Lanka, educational qualifications, service experience, appointed countries, posts of the persons who were appointed to Foreign Diplomatic Missions of Sri Lanka from 8 January 2015 to 1 August 2016 and who are not officers of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service; (ii) of them, the persons holding statuses of dual citizenship/foreign citizenship; and (iii) the duties entrusted to these persons who were political appointees? (b) If not, why? “Will the Minister inform the Parliament the number of people working in the institution; whether it is overstaffed or understaffed and the cost per employee and profit per employee?”

Typically, such a request will have Foreign Ministry officials scrambling to collect the information and sending several copies of a printed document. The question will be answered and the documents filed wherever. If the data were already published by the Ministry on its web site, much time and effort could be saved and Bimal Rathnayake could have used his valuable time to frame a policy question instead of a data question. If the data are not published, the Member of Parliament should frame the question as a request to publish the data so that the Members of Parliament and the general public are informed better, prodding the Ministry concerned towards OGD.

Speaker of Parliament should play a proactive role

Another instance is the submission of annual reports to the Parliament. All Government agencies and statutory bodies are required to submit annual reports to the appropriate consultative committee. These reports are buried deep inside consultative committee reports, and all reports are not available either. The Parliament in fact should have a dedicated web page for accessing annual reports for each and every agency or statutory body. Many have not submitted annual reports for the past few years. The culprits should be immediately visible if such a web page is deployed. 

A further step by the Parliament would be to get Government bodies to agree to a set of key performance data as a supplement the annual reports submitted so that the Members of Parliament and the public see at a glance the inputs and outputs of an public authority.

In “Beyond Access: Open Government Data and the Right to (Re) use Public Information” published in 2011 by Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation, they advise governments to: 

  • Look into potential cost savings associated with publishing government data in the same raw format that is used internally inside public bodies, as opposed to presenting it with a custom web interface
  • Consider making greater use of open source software to facilitate and reduce the transaction cost of converting information into open formats
  • Plan for and design in disclosure in order to avoid incurring additional human resources and IT costs when releasing datasets.
  • Recognise the lack of knowledge and awareness within many public bodies and conduct necessary awareness-raising exercises such as training programs run by central government bringing in relevant experts.

Responsibility of those seeking information

The RTI Act does not require the information seeker to provide a justification for seeking the information (Section 24(5)(d)). However, as citizens of a country struggling to get out of the developing country status, we all should be cognisant of costs of compliance and put extra effort into the question we ask that so that the exercise has clear objectives and prods agencies to be more open in general than respond piecemeal.

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