By Muhammad Zamir
The writer is a former Chief Information Commissioner and Ambassador. He is an analyst specializing in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.?This commentary was published in the Financial Express.
Enacted by the Government of Bangladesh in the first session of the 9th Parliament, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2009 has moved forward over the last five years. Independent analysts have, however, identified areas where steps could be undertaken to make the process more productive, not only in the creation of greater transparency, awareness and higher demand for information but also better supply of the required information. Quite correctly, it is being mentioned that this would assist in improving governance, accountability and reducing corruption.
The World Bank has been associated with this significant initiative from the very beginning. They have done so because they feel that “it is incontrovertible that the most difficult aspect of any new legislation or policy is its implementation”. They have noted that “the implementation stage is much more of a challenge than that of drafting or the passage through the legislature” of such a measure. They have recently outlined their suggestions about the implementation process of the RTI Act in Bangladesh in a document entitled “Connecting Government with citizens: draft strategic plan on implementing Right to Information Act in Bangladesh – an agenda for 2014-2018“.
They have identified an important facet but not in its totality. It must be realised that comprehensive implementation is essential for ensuring success of such a step but it also needs to be understood that framing and then passing such an Act is equally, if not more difficult. One has to visit Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan to understand the connotations of this assumption.
It will, nevertheless, be vital for the concerned Bangladesh authorities, including the Information Commission, to study this World Bank document carefully. In all likelihood they will agree with some of the points but might also disagree with some others. However, it contains some very helpful suggestions that need to be discussed carefully among the principal actors.
IMPORTANT CHALLENGES: The document has marked some important challenges:
(a) the existing mindset of the bureaucracy, particularly those officials who are tasked to provide information;
(b) the lack of capacity in the areas of record-keeping and record-making;
(c) insufficient resources and infrastructure;
(d) inadequate staff and
(e) lack of capacity building”.
It would be fit here to also record that while the Bank document refers to existing challenges, they have also agreed that despite much travail, the Ministry of Information and the Information Commission have tried to expand the effectiveness of the process. This has included the formulation of relevant Rules required under the Act, the appointment of Designated Officers for facilitating the flow of information, and involving the media, particularly the electronic media (to encourage citizens to take advantage of the newly established right to access information).
The World Bank report has, however, overlooked the Information Commission’s two striking initiatives; first, the message that citizens now have the right to seek information has been spread through mobile phone (more than 250 million free SMS messages were transmitted in this regard by Grameen Phone and Robi under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) scheme; secondly, the people could learn more about RTI by visiting the Information Commission web portal, ‘www.infocom.gov.bd’. It may be mentioned here that this portal has been a great success with manifold hits every minute throughout the day and night, every day, from more than 30 countries on an average.
THE IMPLEMENTATION PARADIGM: There can be no debate on the need for certain factors being present within the implementation paradigm if the RTI process is to succeed in a meaningful manner. That includes strong commitment from the upper echelons of the administration together “with a strong sense of ‘inclusiveness’ at the level of different Ministries and keeping the implementation structure simple. Here the Information Commission has a difficult but significant role. They need to decide on the synergy and take steps that have to be developed with other bodies and institutions (both within the government as well as constituted by the civil society).
The World Bank has hinted that though the Ministry of Information is a designated partner of the Information Commission and is performing an important role, it might be useful for the government to constitute a coordinating agency for RTI across the government and include within this matrix the Ministry of Public Administration and the Cabinet Division. This is a good idea and needs to be considered seriously.
In its publication, the World Bank has mentioned that despite the effort of the Information Commission (IC) in raising the level of knowledge among citizens, the current awareness of RTI “remains low”. They have proposed that certain activities could be initiated by the IC to overcome the existing challenge:
(a) forming a group of advisors in every District from among the government officials, lawyers, journalists or civil society members for providing necessary guidance to citizens for filing requests, appeals and complaints;
(b) form RTI strategic partnerships among institutions (NGOs, private organisations, professionals, civil society groups) with communication skills and sustainable outreach programmes to citizens to initiate, augment and scale-up awareness campaign on RTI;
(c) undertake audience (e.g. farmers, students, women, people with disabilities) assessment and analysis in order to identify target-group specific communication strategy for RTI partners (NGOs, private organizations, professionals and civil society);
(d) develop diverse but relevant communication materials (posters, leaflets, TV advertisements etc.) and approaches for various partners to reach identified target-groups at different times to make them aware of the RTI provisions, its applications and benefits; and
(e) assist RTI partners to operate centres (intermediaries, clinics, circles, booths, internet cafes, business outlets) to reach citizens with the materials on how to access government services and the recourse in the event of failure to receive desired information.
The above suggestions are indeed very interesting. It would, however, be remiss not to mention here that the IC has been aware of this difficulty and has consequently been trying to activate these proposals over the last five years. It has been reasonably successful but that can only be described as a child who has now started slowly to run.
INFORMATION COMMISSION’S APPROPRIATE STEPS: It would be correct in this context to refer to some of the important areas where the Information Commission has taken appropriate steps to explaining and expanding the potential of the RTI process to citizens. These include:
(a) including within the text books on Social Science at the level of High School and equivalent-ranked Madrasah system a chapter on the RTI process and its importance for attaining good governance- this is now being studied in school by over 1.5 million children;
(b) using the 20, 068 Designated Officers (as from November 18, 2014) earmarked for the RTI process (16,299 government officers and 3,769 persons designated for this purpose by NGOs) to actively help citizens trying to access the RTI paradigm;
(c) publishing 18 different publications, including Annual Reports, to highlight the Rules and Regulations associated with the RTI process and also details of judgemental action taken by the IC pertaining to complaints received from citizens;
(d) facilitating answers to 59,525 questions-96.91 per cent- out of 61,420 questions (as of 18 November, 2014) filed with different Designated Officers all over the country;
(e) completing adjudication of 703 complaints filed with the Information Commission between 2009 and till now out of a total of 761. It may be pointed out here that 368 of these complaints were resolved through the formal judicial process and 335 through the despatch of letters. 37 complaints are still awaiting resolution. The rest have been set aside as they have not been consistent with the Act, its Rules and Regulations; and
(f) visiting all the 64 Districts (by Officials of the IC) and explaining to representatives from different professions, journalists, civil society, civil servants and private organisations through seminars and workshops the need to improve the dynamics associated with the RTI process through inter-active engagement.
These measures have been taken despite several constraints like lack of adequate digital support for all Designated Officers. I refer here to not all of them having the requisite structure for maintaining records and keeping their data bases up-to-date. Designated Officers do not get any additional pay for the task they are asked to perform in addition to their regular duties. All of them do not also have essential equipment like scanners, computers, UPS, printers and separate mobile phones (paid for by the government or NGOs). Such a situation creates its own difficulties. They need to be tackled. The use of CSR by financial institutions might help.
ROLE OF POLITICAL REPRESENTATIVES: More efforts should be made by our political representatives to persuade the bureaucracy to change their mindset, be open, share facts and figures to achieve transparent, accountable governance. The Ministry of Public Administration and the Cabinet Division might be able to help in this regard by identifying rules and practices that impede the institutionalisation of the RTI Act (government conduct rules and manual of office procedures) and reformulating them through rationalisation.??We have progressed a long way thanks to the support of the government. There is today greater connectivity between citizens and different institutions in real time. There is also a growing awareness that if all the stakeholders coordinate their efforts, we will eventually witness a strategic success story unfolding in the country.