New report finds right to information varies by ministry | Daily News
Shedding culture of secrecy

New report finds right to information varies by ministry

With the passage of the landmark Right to Information Act in 2016, ministries and government departments were supposed to make large amounts of information available for the first time.

But a new report by the World Bank and Colombo-based Verite Research shows that many public agencies still have not.

The law has been in effect now since February of this year. Under three sections, government agencies are supposed to disclose certain information proactively, meaning that such data should be available to anybody, at any time.

Minister of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms 
Gayantha Karunathilake

Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages 
Mano Ganesan 

That information could include budgets, public services, expenditures, and prior disclosures from specific requests under the RTI Act.

But Verite Research calculated that to date, the amount and availability of information from 49 out of the 55 public authorities they surveyed was “moderately unsatisfactory.” Three more ministries scored lower, as “unsatisfactory.”

Only the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs received a “moderately satisfactory” score.

The findings suggest that “the implementation of the online proactive disclosure section of the RTI Act is overall limited and uneven across public bodies and categories of information,” the authors wrote.

In an interview, Acting Director General of the Government Information Department Sudarshana Gunawardene acknowledged the situation.

“We see that there’s a huge gap at the moment,” he said.

Sabrina Esufally, one of the researchers in the project, said the study establishes an important “baseline” for ministries to improve from.

“For ministries to improve their scores, they should be publishing more information of a substantive nature,” she said.

So what actually is being disclosed?

The information public authorities are publishing properly mainly relates to budgets. Verite found that 67 percent of ministries are meeting their requirements for this category under the law, even if they are posting to secondary websites, like that of the Ministry of Finance or Other areas of information, however, suffer.

Only 13 percent of ministries posted timely and detailed information on the public projects they are overseeing, according to Verite.

In addition, ministries posted “minimal disclosures of information on categories such as Public Services and Public Participation,” the authors wrote, which can “inhibit the ability of citizens to engage with government and access basic services.”

Acting Director General of the Government 
Information Department Sudarshana Gunawardene

To illustrate this point, the researchers identified the three-most discussed topics in Parliament from September 2015 to August 2017, and then tried to find information about them on the relevant ministries’ websites.

Those topics, according to Verite’s parliamentary tracker, were economic policy and development, disaster management, and land.

But the authors found that the Ministry of Disaster Management did not have critical information on public services, which was supposed to be disclosed under the RTI law, on its website.

“The absence of such information in the aftermath of a natural disaster could adversely affect displaced persons without access to emergency healthcare and sanitation,” they wrote. The recent flooding in Colombo and the Department of Meteorology’s lack of information on services emphasizes this point.

Similarly, the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms did not disclose information relating to how it operates and its decision-making processes, Verite found.

Worse, during the period of the study, five ministerial portfolios did not even have functioning websites.

These ministries, according to Verite, were the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research, the Ministry of Foreign Employment, the Ministry of Development Assignments, the Ministry of Special Assignments, and the Ministry of Hill Country New Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development.

“During the monitoring period we were faced with numerous instances where websites and information that was up one day, would be down the other,” Sabrina Esufally, the Verite researcher, added.

Lost in translation

The availability of information in all three official languages was also an issue. Verite found that English was the most widely used language for disclosure, followed by Sinhala and then Tamil.

Ministries as a whole scored the worst for their Tamil publications; the website for the Ministry of Women and Child’s Affairs, for example, has a Tamil version of its homepage that’s actually mostly in English. Only a few key words are in Tamil.

Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue, and Official Languages Mano Ganesan said he was concerned by the report’s findings.

“Obviously, obviously, obviously the languages should be equal,” he said. “English is the link language, Sinhala and Tamil are the national languages. English cannot replace Tamil and Sinhala.”

But he also said translation is a resource-intensive task, and that change cannot happen overnight.

“The will is there, we must not also think that ministries are systematically or willingly doing it,” he said. “They want to recognize and abide by the law.”

He said the Ministry of National Co-existence, Dialogue, and Official Languages is conducting six-month trainings of language officers to be translators for other ministries.

Adjusting to the ‘new thinking’

Despite the mediocre marks, Acting Director General of the Government Information Department Sudarshana Gunawardene said the government has actually made a lot of progress in terms of disclosure.

“We are going towards the right direction,” he said in an interview.

He added that as much as ministries and public agencies are learning to comply with new technical guidelines, they also need to shed a culture of secrecy.

“Traditionally the government looks at information as something restricted,” he said. The new legal right to information, by contrast, “is new thinking.”

“The national security mentality that prevailed in the country during the separatist war also contributed to this attitude,” he said.

All that aside, he admitted that he sees a “huge gap” in the information that’s supposed to be disclosed under the law, and what actually makes it to the public.

Gunawardene said the focus of the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media now is to strengthen proactive disclosure through workshops, technical assistance, and capacity-building.

He mentioned that his department had hosted a workshop earlier this month for RTI officers in the Western Province.

“These officers need capacity-building” to better comply with the RTI law, he said. But in the long run, “success is due to the enabling environment, the general atmosphere,” he added.

“We are getting more (RTI) requests,” he said. “That means people are aware of the situation, and we are responding fast.”

For Verite’s part, Researcher Sabrina Esufally said the Media Ministry had responded positively to its report.

“(The Ministry) felt that the methodology and ranking system would incentivize greater proactive disclosure,” she said.

“Despite the fact that it is still early days, there were some ministries, such as the Ministries of Health, Finance, and Education that were able to obtain relatively high scores,” she added.

But until government officials shed the culture of secrecy, proactive disclosures, and responses to RTI requests, will be an uphill battle.

Right to Information Act

The Right to Information Bill was presented in Parliament on March 24,2016 by then Mass Media and Parliamentary Reforms Minister Gayantha Karunathila.

The main purpose of the Bill was to provide for the Right of access to information, to specify grounds on which access may be denied, to establish the Right to Information Commission, to appoint Information Officers and to set out the procedure and for matters connected with it.

Subject to the provisions of section 5 of this Act, every citizen would have a right of access to information which is in the possession, custody or control of a public authority. The Right to Information bill was first presented to Parliament on March 24, 2016, and the amended bill was presented in Parliament on June 23 for the second reading.

The RTI bill was amended following the Supreme Court’s decision in May that certain clauses of the Bill violate the constitution and that it would need a two-thirds majority in Parliament to become law if not amended.

However a request for access to information shall be refused under following circumstances: Information related to personal information devoid of any public interest, defense matters of the state, confidential details on international agreements, information which might harm the economy of Sri Lanka, trade secrets, medical records, communication between a professional and a public authority which is not permitted to be disclosed, information which might hamper detection of any crime, information which would be in contempt of court, information that would infringe the privileges of Parliament and information which may be harmful to the integrity of an examination conducted by the Department of Examination, etc.

Ministries, departments, public corporations, local authorities, non-governmental organizations that are substantially funded by the government, higher educational institutions, courts and tribunals etc. should provide access to information and shall maintain records.

They must also endeavor to preserve all records in electronic format.

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