Roughly four years in the making, and the subject of patient and careful vetting and testing, the Right to Information Act will become law as soon as it is published in the Gazette. It will be rolled out over a two-year period.
Make no mistake; the RTI Act is a solid win for transparency. It sets the philosophical grounds for a more open, accessible and accountable government. The first section of the Act serves as a manifesto of sorts, setting out in no uncertain terms its reason for being: “to promote transparency, accountability, and national development by empowering and educating the public to understand and act upon their rights to information; and to increase public participation in governance.”
By requiring the government to treat all information as open by default, it sets an across-the-board expectation that the government serves the people, not the other way around. The RTI Act establishes a simple, manageable, cost-effective process by which members of the media and the public can request information. Each of those aspects is important.
The law states, “An application … may be made in writing, orally or through any electronic means, in any official language, and to the relevant Government agency, relevant private entity or private entity, specifying the information required.”
Importantly, the request cannot be denied based on who is asking or why. In a nutshell, I can’t refuse your request just because I don’t trust you, know you or like what you’re saying.
The Information Officer is required to fill out a written report of the application. This will make a bit of extra work, but not so much as to bog down the machinery of government. If the RTI forms are kept simple, they should be trivially easy to fill out. It’s the Information Officer—and not the applicant—who fills it out. That’s important. It means that even an illiterate person can apply, and it makes the request itself a public document, subject to RTI requests.
Likewise, Information Officers are required to provide assistance when an application is being submitted. This means they can’t prey on the ignorance of the applicant. That’s another important step for transparency and participation.
Every department and government-run agency will be required to designate an Information Officer. In the vast majority of cases, this will not result in new positions being created. Typically, this would be a person already responsible for office or records management.
The Information Officer has the right and the responsibility to enlist the necessary assistance from whomever is best positioned to help. And anyone who’s asked is required to render assistance. In the right hands, this authority could be quite effective.
But the law does have its warts. The Act sets out maximum time frames for every step of the application and response. In a worst case scenario, the process could drag on for months. The great fear here is that setting maximum times for completion effectively tells people who long they can stall before they have to reply.
When we brought that concern up with the RTI team, they expressed doubt that it would cause hindrance. Most requests for information wouldn’t be in the form of a formal RTI request anyway, they said.
That’s naïve, to be frank. To imagine that departmental figures wouldn’t eventually realise that they can use the RTI process as a delaying tactic, dragging out requests until the public’s attention had moved on… well, anyone who doesn’t see that coming has never tried to report a politically sensitive story before.
We need language establishing norms and setting expectations concerning timelines, undue delay as well as when and where RTI requests are required. We also need the right to submit expedited requests in cases other than life and death situations, currently the only time requests can be hurried along. Even the current maximum of 48 hours in a critical situation can be a day and a half too long.
Yes, reasonable people can generally work together efficiently and without rancour or delay. But we don’t write laws for reasonable people. We write laws to make unreasonable people act reasonably. That’s an important distinction.
The RTI Act needs significant improvement in this area if it’s going to be useful for media whose response times are often measured in minutes.
There are other important gains, though. The Act specifies that even if information is classified, that isn’t enough in and of itself to keep it under wraps. If the public benefits more from its disclosure than its secrecy, an Information Officer has a duty to release it.
Likewise, any information that’s already in the public domain can’t be clawed back and hidden behind an RTI wall.
Of course, nobody is suggesting we open the floodgates. The Act specifically protects personal information, security and national defence documents, legally privileged documents and material that might prejudice policy decisions or the economic integrity of the country.
All in all, journalists, civil servants and the public at large should celebrate this achievement, as with so many things in Vanuatu, this particular glass house isn’t flawless; it’s a bit of a fixer-upper. But it’s ours, and it’s a better place than we were in yesterday.