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Saturday, 13 June 2009

The case for freedom of information ?

Fackson Banda puts forward a passionate case for more open government centred around the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act:

There can be no doubt that Zambia would have been better off had it institutionalised transparency and accountability in its government structures. In an earlier article, I focused on how British parliamentarians became implicated in an expenses scandal that has seen the resignation of the powerful House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, along with several members of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet.

All this became possible through the publication by the UK’s Daily Telegraph of damning evidence of how British parliamentarians – across the political divide – helped themselves to the public purse through outrageously corrupt expenses claims. As a result, Brown’s Labour Party has suffered a devastating loss of councils in the just-ended local election. As if this was not enough, the Labour Party has also been dealt a humiliating and painful blow in the European Parliamentary elections, losing most of their seats to the Conservatives.


Against people’s disenchantment with the Establishment politics, a disturbing phenomenon has emerged in British politics. What is described as a fascist and racist British National Party (BNP) seems close to gaining a foothold in mainstream British politics, signalling a dark chapter in that country.

This is what happens when societies become so democratically bankrupt that people feel their voices are not heard. This is the tragedy of liberal democracies which elevate a more formalistic or mechanistic democracy, with little or no real civic participation. People become disillusioned and soon turn to something else – something more sinister. It is a way of striking out at the elite system of democracy. We must remember that Britain dithered about the enactment and implementation of its Freedom of Information Act of 2000. And now they are paying the price for it.

What has happened at the Ministry of Health in our country, and possibly what is true of all other government ministries and departments, is bad for democratic politics. This is what happens when government operations are shrouded in secrecy, known only to a select few. It is so heart-rending to read that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health may not have been privy to some of the financial decisions made on behalf of the ministry.

This is why there is urgent need to open up the government system to greater public scrutiny. We have had enough talk about national security. In the past, I have used up enough space of my column to debunk the notion that national security is the raison d'ĂȘtre for keeping a closed government bureaucracy. Our politicians’ understanding of national security is narrow, circumscribed around their party-political survival. Properly understood, national security includes protecting the country against grand corruption, which can result in any number of social upheavals. We have already begun to witness such upheavals the country. It would be foolhardy not to correlate the on-going health workers’ strike to the cases of plunder of financial resources in the Ministry of Health.

The workers have realised – painfully – that if people can steal as much as K27 billion from a single ministry, the government must be awash in money. If the crippling of the health system cannot be described as a threat to national security, then I don’t know what can. Many government workers are convinced that the Zambian government, if it managed its financial resources prudently, would be able to pay them a decent wage.

The government could help itself with more ease than imaginable. It can help the public track its financial performance. Such opening up can play a corruption-preventive role. Indeed, workers can, for themselves, follow the trail of money and understand why their salaries are structured the way they are.

The first thing, then, is to speed up the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. This is not just for media workers, incidentally. It is for any Zambia citizen who has a legitimate reason to ask for information relating to any aspect of government performance. It is easy to see how such a law will make it difficult for people to hide behind the veil of secrecy that so characterises the government structure. It would compel civil servants to discharge their services with a degree of probity. It would encourage ordinary Zambians to “own’ their government and thus become co-responsible for its operations.

The second thing is for government ministries and departments to become proactively transparent in their deeds. They need not wait for, nor indeed dread, the Auditor-General’s annual reports. In the age of Internetisation, government bodies can publish online, monthly or quarterly perhaps, details of their financial incomes and expenditures for people to see. Zambia must run an open government. Here, we can perhaps learn from President Barack Obama.

On his first full day in office, President Obama issued an Executive Order and several memoranda on transparency. His “open government agenda” has six key features, five of which are relevant to the Zambian situation.

First, it provides easy access to public information, ensuring that “the government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”

Second, it limits the scope of claims of executive privilege, ensuring that citizens have greater access to presidential records and communications, with fewer and narrower cases of executive privilege.

Third, it emphasises affirmative disclosure of information, whereby the public’s right to be informed about decisions and facts that affect it should encompass a duty on the part of the government to proactively disclose and disseminate information that is relevant to affected communities.

Fourth, it emphasises public participation, guaranteeing that decisions best reflect the interest of the public and benefit from the greatest level of possible expertise. In other words, it ensures that government is participatory.

Fifth, it uses new technologies innovatively to promote interactivity between public servants and the citizenry in decision-making, in the belief that such an interactive platform will enable the public to track, review and comment on decisions made by the head of the executive.

Our Zambian government system demonstrates a lackadaisical approach to such noble principles of transparency and accountability. While we cannot reproduce Obama’s open government agenda in its exactness, there are some important steps that we can take, not least speeding up the enactment of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.

We can also configure our government web sites in such a way that there is genuine interactivity. Our State House web site, for example, has been “under construction” longer than I can remember. When it is up and running, I hope that it will answer to the communicative imperatives of simplicity of navigation, interactivity, and the like. I also hope that its content will be much more than the mundane.

The same lessons can be extended to all other government web sites. Many of them tend to be for show rather than serious engagement with the public. Why, for example, can’t citizens, download certain application forms from such web sites? Indeed, it is not clear whether or not they are updated. Nor is it clear that their feedback facility is fully exploited. E-Government can help build openness and restore public confidence in the government bureaucracy.

Of course, I realise that the majority of Zambians have little or no access to the Internet, but we can always hope for a ‘remediation’ of such online content through other more accessible channels, such as radio, newspapers, television, and the like.

The bottom-line, however, is that Zambia needs an open government to enhance its national security. In some instances, national security is not about secrecy; it is about transparency.
There's a lot I agree with in the article, especially the need for a general "opening up" of government, underpinned by clear principles on good governance. The call for greater e-government is particularly sounded. Indeed I touch on this issue in Governing in difficult times. But there's one area where Fackson's does not provide a balanced assessment : Freedom of Information. There are huge costs associated with Freedom of Information which he has overlooked e.g. resource costs (some has to handle your query), IT equipment (need I say more?) and biggest of them all the need for an Information Regulator. A whole new office dedicated to ensure your requests are being taken serious. Incidentally, as with every new legislation, where parties disagree the matter ends up in court (more cases for the Judiciary to handle on top the corruption cases). It might be that on the balance the social benefits of freedom of information outweigh the costs, but we should not overlook the costs involved as we debate these issues. A balanced assessment is needed informed by real numbers.

8 comments:

  1. Come on, the cost of a call center can't be prohibitive. Besides, it make all the money back if instances of fraud are reported or new ideas are adopted through it.

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  2. Fully implementing government Freedom of Information is much more difficult and expensive in circumstances where the activities of Ministries are not yet fully computerized, let alone state of the art. It is a good goal to have, but actual searching through paper records distributed around several physical sites is a time consuming and labour intensive task requiring significant expertise with the structure of the archives to perform efficiently.

    That said, I think that full disclosure and provision for public access to budget related reports and accounts from a single government source is achievable without extreme levels of expenditure or staff. I don't think that the tax base can support full access to copies of every memo and form, but of course courts should be able to have them produced on demand should they be pertinent to a particular issue before the bench. Some of the information kept by government is of a sensitive personal nature (such as medical records), and thus someone has to sort out which information should be available to the public and which should require a court order. I think that for the purposes of tracking down the bulk of potential corruption, freedom of information on budgetary matters ought to be sufficient.

    Better websites including downloadable and printable forms (if not filled and filed electronically) would be an excellent addition which would likely save money over the long term. IT connectivity is spreading quickly, and like the rest of the world Zambians will be expecting more information from their government than ever before, so it makes sense to begin preparing a solid foundation now. Overall I think that Fackson Banda has stated his case well, especially about the need to involve the public more intimately with their government, and to empower government workers to take pride in a career of honorable public service.

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  3. Yakima,

    I agree that the extent of the burden that may be imposed would depend on how prescriptive the FOI Act is. The more prescriptive the more useful, but the more burden. A right balance would have to be struck.

    My view is that a properly functioning government would not need the FOI Act because it would be an "open government" already. Free to exchange information and with a clear presence.

    FOI Acts are meant to incentivise governments to act responsibly. If they don't they are subject to penalties. In other words, the FOI Act has to be credible tool to the public. To do that you need a strong Information Commissioner and the courts have to be ready and willing to enforce issues.

    In terms of a single point of entry. I think that depends on how joined up government is already. In Zambia the Ministries bearly know what each other are doing or the structures.

    We are starting from a very low base of internal government organisation.

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  4. Here is one way San Francisco is trying to set the standard for using technology to improve accountability : Twittering your way to improved governance

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  5. Cho,

    Twitter is a good thing because it helps integrate SMS with the internet, and definitely in the Zambian context the comparative number of phones vs. internet connections makes SMS a really key mode of communication going forward - especially in rural areas. The problem with trying to use it for things like government accountability is that it is too simple.

    Not only is 140 characters far from enough to describe any particular problem with any specificity, SMS is also far too easy to use on the spur of the moment. I suspect that San Fran will get flooded with angry texts (from motorists primarily), sent by frustrated people who will be encouraged to blame their immediate dilemmas on city officials. In the US this sort of thing is common even with police emergency response lines, just a short while ago a woman repeatedly called the police because the restaurant she went to had run out of the chicken special (no, she would not accept a refund, she was demanding chicken and wanted the police to force the restaurant to produce it). Even more recently an Indian immigrant called emergency services when his two sons were fighting over a toy, because he had misunderstood when told that the number was for when you needed help.

    Once an official contact point for the public to report things like corruption is established, then it becomes imperative to investigate the substance of every incoming allegation. Those who report suspected acts of corruption by persons in positions of power are justifiably fearful, and are unlikely to repeat themselves or wade through multiple layers of bureaucracy openly. Such genuine complaints must be sifted out from whatever amount of false or spurious allegations and reports come via the same channel.

    I don't think that San Fran will be able to glean enough information from twitters to effectively make use of personnel to improve governance. If they make more specialized use of SMS for highly specific tasks, then they may have greater success. For example a sign reading: To report road maintenance issues, SMS to #number. Alternately a specific request for information such as a tweet reading: Police searching for white toyota pickup broken left taillight lic#number reply to #12345. That might get a high proportion of useful information.

    On info freedom, I think of two approaches: one where a member of the public can file forms with a central government information office in order to obtain (perhaps for a fee) copies of any unclassified document on file in any Ministry. I think this is unattainable over the medium term without costs exceeding the relative benefits compared to other uses for the budget and personnel.

    The second approach is to allow individuals to apply for access in order to search records themselves, and to examine them while signed in to Ministry offices, and where appropriate, to make copies at their own expense (though this would require access to Ministry reproduction resources, thus increasing government overhead, so volume of use would determine cost to taxpayers). This I think is more doable in the immediate, though disruption of normal Ministry operations would have to be avoided to prevent additional unforeseen costs.

    Do we have a copy of the proposed Act?

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  6. Yakima,

    lol!

    Very bad use of police resources!

    No surprise I suppose. When people do not bear the consequences of their actions these things are bound to happen.

    On SMS : I agree in Zambia its the most ideal. It shouldn't be difficult to implement such systems because people use SMS banking. Even farmers we once blogged are experimenting with it in terms of price discovery. I suspect these mechanisms are entirely dependent on the mobile carriers' capacity.

    On FOI: No we haven't yet. The Ministry of Information have it under close guard. What they need to really do is introduce a Green Paper on the matter so that we can all discuss how it would work. There's an alternative which they might consider - that is for each Ministry to clearly set out what information they would be willing to release to anyone as a matter of routine. A sort of good practice approach - as a first step. In the future when all processes are in place, then a formal regime can be implemented

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  7. Cho,

    Ah, without access to the proposed legal language, it becomes difficult to predict outcomes or propose changes indeed! I appreciate Fackson Banda's enthusiasm for the issue, however I would hesitate to actually back FOI legislation sight unseen. In the absence of the real thing, we can only speculate much more widely over the potential structures and their various defects and advantages. I like your idea of a generally more open government wherein each Ministry is prepared to provide certain types of information to the public or other Ministries in a routine fashion.

    All of which becomes far easier and less costly to manage after record keeping is computerized, so it may make sense to wait until that can be accomplished before trying to implement FOI systems for some Ministries or information types. For example, why spend money on clerks to search through antiquated paper records of land leases and customary jurisdictions on a case by case basis, when the same budget might enable creation of a digital map of property records that could be updated using GPS coordinates and referenced quickly and easily from that point on.

    I think that where possible it makes sense to hang on to a current technology for a longer period of time than is strictly necessary, in order to upgrade all the way to the state of the art in a single leap. In some cases certainly there may be insufficient expertise to effectively skip development stages within a particular area of the economy, and the state of the art in other areas changes too rapidly to justify the greater expense where lesser technology will provide a more cost effective productivity boost. I think that the key is to keep projects small and specific, and as with the example of comprehensive digital property mapping, improve public and intra-governmental access to certain types of information at the Ministry level.

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