Better management of public information -gathering, storing, analysing and disseminating - should come into sharper focus with RTI.
fter many years of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists, Sri Lanka is set to soon adopt a law guaranteeing citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). With that, we will join 102 other countries that have introduced such laws.
The first step has already been taken. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in Parliament on 28 April 2015, included a provision that made the Right to Information a Fundamental Right.
The Right to Information (RTI) Bill, which went through various revisions during the extended 100-day period since the Presidential Election, was meant to institutionalise the arrangement. But it was not taken up by the last Parliament before dissolution.
In its election manifesto the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) promised to pass both the Right to Information Bill and the National Audit Bill – two key pieces of legislation that could enhance transparency and accountability in government.
"In 2012, India’s Department of Science and Technology issued the National Policy on Data Sharing and Accessibility (NPDSA), which requires all governmental agencies -- including public universities – to publicly share data generated using public funds, and in specified digital formats. "
Now, we the people expect the new government to walk the talk, and to take up these Bills on a priority basis.
South Asian (SAARC) countries have been making incremental progress towards legally guaranteeing RTI. From 2002 to 2014, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan formally enacted RTI laws. In February 2014, Bhutan became the 100th country in the world to pass its own RTI law.
Sri Lanka, where efforts to introduce RTI started back in 2002, can soon join this group of nations.
Adopting even an imperfect RTI law would be a progressive step for sure, but it is only the beginning of a long journey. Proper implementation will require adequate political will, administrative planning and public funds.
We would also need sustained monitoring by civil society groups and media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.
Change of Mindset
RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in status quo. For 133 years of British rule and 67 years of self-rule, all governments have restricted public information – even mundane ones unrelated to any security or sensitive issues.
When this finally changes, public servants and citizens will need to adjust. Info custodians can no longer release selectively, or demand petty bribes for doing so. Citizens, on their part, must focus on information they can demand and receive.
To draw an analogy from water management, opening sluice gates of a water reservoir can benefit only if the downstream systems are in place and the users are ready. With both water and information, recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.
As long-standing champions of RTI, Lankan media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from RTI themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere of public life. They can show, inspire and equip other citizens on how best to make use of it.
However, RTI is not just a piece of law or changing how governments share public information. At its most basic, RTI is a collective state of mind. With its adoption, a society can start moving along a more open, informed and inquisitive pathway.
Better management of public information – which covers its proper gathering, storing, analysing and disseminating – should come into sharper focus with RTI.
Public information exists in many forms today – ranging from minutes of meetings, budget allocation and expense records to scientifically gathered information such as census data, harvest data and trade statistics. These may be stored on paper, tapes or in digital formats.
With the rise of digital technologies, the volume of specialised data held by governments has risen phenomenally. Both the data custodians and citizens today need higher levels of information/data literacy to navigate through this unprecedented torrent.
The good news is that the web makes it much easier to share large volumes of information. But to ensure usability, each country needs to adopt uniform standards for gathering and storing data. This minimises users facing problems that arise with different devices, software and measuring units.
‘Open Data’ is a concept gaining ground worldwide. It means that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.
The open data approach is especially applied to scientific data and government data. But the debate is far from settled: while there are many strong arguments for opening up, some are concerned about potential misuses. Guidelines are still evolving.
Sri Lanka’s public sector has been slowly moving towards open data without much fanfare. The Sri Lanka Open Data Initiative, started in 2013, now makes some official datasets freely available online. (See: https://www.data.gov.lk)
Hosted and operated by the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) in collaboration with other agencies, it focuses on machine-readable datasets (i.e. data that is not ‘locked in’ and can be analysed with other software).
Its goal is to make “core government development, demographic, statistical and expenditure data available in a useful digital format for researchers, policymakers, software solution developers and the general public”.
As at 10 September 2015, 9 public sector entities had placed 89 datasets on the Sri Lanka Open Data Initiative. Nearly half of these came from two well known data custodians: the Department of Census and Statistics and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Among the other participating agencies are the Police Department, Import and Export Department, Board of Investment and the Department of Motor Traffic.
Yes, these represent only a small fraction of the massive volume of data held by public sector agencies. At least the hitherto guarded ‘chest’ of government data has been prised open! Expanding and updating datasets is a high priority: at the moment the latest data is from 2012.
Geospatial data is another area that has been slow to open up. Despite their many benefits in development planning and humanitarian response, maps are not available or used as widely as they should be. For too long, maps have been produced and distributed by a few and among a few.
The 215-year-old Survey Department has the largest collection of maps in Sri Lanka. During the civil war years, access to many detailed maps was restricted, but that justification no longer exists. Yet researchers and other citizens still have to wade through the bureaucracy to get to SD maps produced with public funds. It’s time to open up this collection!
To be useful, public data release must be affordable as well. That is not always the case. For example, our historical weather data going back many decades is available from the Department of Meteorology – but the high user fee puts it beyond the reach of many researchers.
So, there is much to do -- and on many fronts. In moving towards RTI and open data does, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can instead learn or borrow good policies and practices from neighbours who have had a head start in RTI and public data management.
An example: in 2012, India’s Department of Science and Technology issued the National Policy on Data Sharing and Accessibility (NPDSA), which required all governmental agencies -- including public universities – to publicly share data generated using public funds, and in specified digital formats. We need a similar policy.
For policy and technical level co-operation, Sri Lanka should also consider joining an international, multilateral initiative called the Open Government Partnership (OGP, www.opengovpartnership.org).
OGP is a global effort “to make governments better”. It aims to secure firm commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
OGP was launched in September 2011, when the founding eight governments of Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and United States formally adopted the Open Government Declaration and announced national action plans.
Since then, the partnership has grown to 66 countries representing a third of the world’s population. Participating governments have made over 2,000 commitments to be more open and accountable to their citizens.
In the Asia Pacific region, Australia, Indonesia, Mongolia and South Korea have already joined. For some reason, there is none from South Asia yet –this is where Sri Lanka can perhaps take the lead.
"RTI is not just a piece of law or changing how governments share public information. At its most basic, RTI is a collective state of mind. With its adoption, a society can start moving along a more open, informed and inquisitive pathway."
To join OGP, a country must meet minimum eligibility criteria. These cover the timely publication of essential budget documents forms the basic building blocks of budget accountability; RTI guaranteed by law; rules that require public disclosure of income and assets for elected and senior public officials; and openness to citizen participation and engagement in policymaking and governance, including basic protections for civil liberties.
The OGP website lists Sri Lanka (along with Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan) as an eligible country not yet participating.
If the new yahapalana government takes the initiative, Sri Lanka can become the first in South Asia to join OGP.
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has been chronicling and analysing the rise of information society in Sri Lanka for two decades. He is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com He thanks Sanjana Hattotuwa for his inputs in this article.