An unused right
VARIOUS international and domestic factors have led to the adoption of Right To Information (RTI) laws across the world over the last 25 years. More than 90 countries now have laws on access to information, up from 13 in 1990. There is now global recognition of the importance of transparency in promoting effective governance.
RTI is fundamental to enhancing citizen participation in decision-making, affecting public policy, and tipping the balance of power between states and citizens.
Internationally, momentum for reform has been created by intergovernmental bodies and aid agencies, working with local NGOs and policymakers that have pressurised governments to pass RTI laws. In many cases, this pressure has translated into reality at the national level as domestic political elites have realised they need to support RTI efforts to gain or maintain their political legitimacy domestically and internationally.
Two RTI laws have recently been enacted in Pakistan — the Punjab Transparency and RTI Act 2012 and the KP RTI Act 2013. Both are considered effective pieces of legislation, the KP act being ranked quite highly by the Centre for Law and Democracy, an independent group that ranks RTI laws worldwide.
But does an RTI law on its own guarantee improved transparency and accountability? What is the broader impact of these laws for strengthening social accountability? Do citizens make use of these laws to access information? And are their information requests entertained?
Pakistan has many laws that have been of little use to citizens due to ineffective implementation. It is imperative to ensure that RTI laws don’t follow the path of laws which have no impact on the ground and don’t feed into broader systemic governance reforms.
Formal institutional mechanisms need to be put in place in order to safeguard effective implementation of RTI laws and leverage their use for positive transparency and accountability outcomes. Experience has shown that in countries where specific agencies were designated for creating awareness and support for the law, and where capacity was built in the public sector to respond to RTI requests, the laws have worked well.
It is important to set up support institutions of two kinds: an independent oversight agency (such as information commissions — both the Punjab and KP laws make provisions for these) as well as oversight and capacity building nodal agencies within the government.
While information commissions are instrumental as redress mechanisms for appeals against non-compliance, the latter are needed for promoting and coordinating change management within government departments and for pushing them to comply with the law through training, capacity building, issuing detailed notifications, appointing public information officers and improving record management practices.
In India, for instance, the Department of Personnel and Training oversees implementation of the RTI law in the central government, whereas the Central Information Commission has given rulings against public offices that refused to comply with information requests. It is necessary to give these institutions adequate funding and political support if RTI laws are to contribute to good governance.
The implementation phase is often not as high-profile as the movement to enact laws. Political actors, and even civil society groups and citizens can lose momentum and enthusiasm by this stage. Public officials can resist implementation through strategies such as creating amendments and non-compliance with information requests. Passing laws is only half the effort the government must put in to allow citizens to use the law.
Civil society organisations can play an intermediary role by building the capacity of government departments to disclose information proactively and respond efficiently to information requests, and on the demand side by raising awareness of the citizenry on the benefits of using the law as well as helping them file information requests.
Finally, effectiveness of the new RTI laws will also depend on the political economy of governance structures in Pakistan. Whether or not the laws will feed into an anti-corruption movement and translate into increased state accountability whereby citizens are more directly involved in governance will depend on certain dimensions of governance. These include how effectively check and balance institutions such as commissions, the legislature and judiciary follow up on information disclosures and whether or not the media and civil society make effective use of information disclosed to sustain the RTI movement for concrete transparency and accountability outcomes.
This will only be possible if the RTI movement is tied to a broader movement for comprehensive reforms that seeks to address underlying governance challenges facing Pakistan today.
The writer manages the Transparency Programme at Open Society Foundation Pakistan.