Hiring 8,000 fresh graduates is no way to implement Right to Information Law

Thursday, 7 July 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It was reported in the Lankadeepa of 30 June that the Government has decided to recruit 8,000 fresh graduates to serve as information officers in order to implement the recently-approved Right to Information Law. The report added that the Gazette calling for applications for this single largest intake of graduates would be issued in July.6sg6

It appears that the present Government wants to break the record set by its predecessor which hired 4,000 graduates in a single intake. What is sad is that this action is being taken in the name of implementing an important piece of legislation that has the potential to transform the functioning of government. This ill-considered action will not only increase the current bloat of Government but it will also subvert the implementation of the RTI Law.

The Act mandates the appointment of an Information Officer or Officers for each “public authority,” defined as all Government entities, semi-Governmental entities, companies with more than 25% Government ownership, etc. Information Officers are critical to the implementation of the Act. It is to Information Officers that citizens must direct their RTI requests. It is the Information Officers who must determine within 14 days whether the request can be satisfied and it is they who must provide the information within 14 days of that determination.

If Information Officers do not fulfil their duties they will be held personally liable. The Act foresees how difficult their task is: “Any officer whose assistance was sought for by an information officer under section 23(3) and who fails without reasonable cause to provide such assistance, shall commit an offence under this Act, and shall on conviction after summary trial by a Magistrate be liable to a fine not exceeding ten thousand rupees.”

Both the Information Officers and other officers whose cooperation is required for the fulfilment of the Information Officers’ duties may be prosecuted under the Act in addition to normal disciplinary procedures.

It is clear that being an Information Officer is not thought of as an easy job. Government culture has been one that opposed information disclosure. Corrupt and inept officials do not want information disclosed. Even otherwise, poor record-keeping practices make it very difficult to retrieve information within government organisations, as illustrated by the following tragic excerpt from the Sunday Times of 3 July:

Among the 126 “no-dates” cases… is a non-summary case (No. 2924 at Walasmulla Magistrate’s Court) in which the accused has been in remand since 1994, for 12 years. There is no clue about the whereabouts of his file. The LAC is trying to trace it. The Police have not forwarded the IB extract to the Attorney-General’s office.

Who would be more effective in extracting the missing file in Walasmulla MC Case 2924: a wet-behind-the-ears fresh graduate or a senior officer who has absorbed the tacit knowledge of how the organisation works over the years and who has authority that comes with seniority? The drafters of the Act appear to have understood it would be the latter. 

Section 23 provides “that until such time that an Information Officer is appointed under this subsection, the Head or Chief Executive Officer of a public authority shall be deemed to be the Information Officer of such public authority, for the purposes of this Act.” One does not designate the Head of an organisation to pinch hit for a junior officer. 

If the Government wants to hire unemployed graduates, it should do so without hiding behind the RTI Act. What effective RTI implementation requires is the recruitment and motivation of the very best among the 1.4 million current Government employees as Information Officers and their use as the spearheads of Government reform. This is the only way the full potential of the RTI Act can be realised.

Recent columns