RTI: Rocky road to Sri Lanka’s new transparency culture

It has been three months since the implementation of the Right To Information (RTI) Act and it hasn’t been a smooth ride. Many issues have cropped up, such as the lack of public awareness, people not being able to access the necessary officers to give in their requests, inadequately trained officers, confusion with the application process etc. With the RTI Act citizens can receive information from all public authorities. According to officials the road to Sri Lanka’s new transparency culture will be long and hard, but in order to achieve the end goal, people need to put in the work and effort to incorporate this new culture into our system.   

 
RTI Process

Explaining the process in which the appeal reaches the RTI Commission, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena said, “Firstly, the information request, when filed to the Information Officer (IO), must be considered on the basis of maximum disclosure. If there is a denial of information, the Information Officer is duty bound to show that the harm caused by releasing the information is greater than the public interest. This is because there is a public interest override applying against all the exemptions under which the denial can be made. It would be a mistake for Information Officers to focus on the exemptions rather than the public interest override as the RTI Commission would assess his/her compliance to the RTI Act against that fundamental test in the first instance.”  
“Secondly, if there is a denial, the matter must first go to the Designated Officer in that public authority. In both these instances the respective officers must state the reasons, the specific section relating to the exemption under which they’re turning down the request and justify it as not falling within the public interest override. Finally, it is only if that denial is upheld by the Designated Officer(DO) that the information requester could appeal to the RTI Commission.”  
“These are 3 independent and separate steps in the process.The RTI Commission cannot advise the Information Officer or the Designated Officer on whether he/she should refuse or give the information. It is up to those Officers to independently exercise his/her minds. If they don’t exercise their minds properly under the RTI Act, then the Commission will be called upon to make a determination.”   
“If an information requester skips one stage of the process, for example, if he/she files the request to the Designated Officer not to the Information Officer or files it to the Information Officer then goes directly to the Commission, the request will not be considered as a proper appeal to the RTI Commission and the Commission will refer the matter back to the relevant authorities and the relevant officer in that authority.”  

 
Appointment of IOs

“The implementation of the RTI Act depends on the Public Authorities. They should do the actual work when the citizens ask for information. Currently, all over the island, the appointed number of IOs is 2776. The following table shows the breakdown of the appointment of IOs,” said Piyatissa Ranasinghe while speaking of the appointment of IOs.

“But unfortunately judicial authorities, universities and higher education institutions except for Peradeniya University, have not reported to us regarding the appointment of their IOs. Among NGOs, only Sarvodaya has informed us of their appointments.” He said.
Regarding the instances where Public Authorities have not yet appointed Information Officers,  Pinto-Jayawardena said, “The law is very clear, Information Officers have to be appointed for these public authorities and where one has not been appointed the Head or Chief Executive Officer automatically becomes the Information Officer. The gap here is not in the law, but the implementation process. This is all still very new to Sri Lanka as the Act was operational just three months ago. Other countries would have taken 4-5 years for implementation. These issues may soon be sorted out. But if a Public Authority deliberately resists the requirements of the Act, there will be consequences.”   

 
"We are a poor developing country. We can’t say how long it would take, but we are monitoring and pushing for things to be done as soon as possible"

Training of IOs

“Our Ministry is responsible for the training of the Information Officers and to improve the understanding of the law among government offices. We have now conducted 7 provincial seminars, except in the North and North Western Provinces which will be conducted in May. After which we will be starting district level seminars for the Executive Officers. The first seminar was conducted in Hambantota, the Polonnaruwa seminar was conducted on May 2nd, the other seminars will be completed by June/July. Currently, nearly 16 national ministries have conducted their training sessions for their Department Heads, Corporation Heads and Ministry Officials. Other ministries too will follow. We are also expecting the start of the RTI resource centre in August/September ” said Mr. Ranasinghe  
“We have also completed our Information Officer’s Handbook under the USA aid project. At the end of May we will be starting the IO’s 3 day training with the assistance of Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration, Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance and Management Development Training Units in the Provinces and other training authorities in the public sector.While these three agencies will provide the training we will provide the intellectual assistance, training material, training curriculum and other facilities,” he added.


 
Sri Lanka’s Ranking

“Sri Lanka is ranked at No.3 in the world, mainly because of the rules made by the RTI Commission. There are 111 countries who have RTI in the world and each country has a commission that makes the rules. It is based on the content of the Act that the countries are ranked and not the implementation.”   

Implementation

Speaking of how long it will take to implement the Act properly, Mr. Ranasinghe said,“Even after 10 years India has not implemented their RTI Act properly. Implementation depends on the people’s activities. If the people aren’t actively asking for information and submitting their appeals the Act will not operate. The problem is that most of the people don’t understand the Act and its regulations. It’ll take some time for this knowledge to be absorbed by the general public. Until then the Department of Information which is under the Ministry is using radio, print media and television in order to spread awareness. Other organizations too, such as TISL and Sarvodhaya are working on public awareness.”  
Contributing to the topic of implementation Ms. Radika Gunaratne stated that, “Basically, it depends on the political powers and all the people who are needed to implement it properly. For example, for a developed country like the UK it took 5 years to implement the Act. We are still in our first few months, and we are a poor developing country. We can’t say how long it would take, but we are monitoring and pushing for things to be done as soon as possible.”   
“Implementation is difficult. We need to give the government time in order to integrate this new culture into society. It’s been 10 years since India has implemented their RTI and they’re still facing problems. People need to fight and work hard in order to receive the information they require in order to integrate the Act into our system” She concluded.


“What we find is that implementation is not happening as smoothly as expected. It all depends on the individuals concerned. But at the very central levels I believe that there is still lack of training and awareness on the part of the state about the obligations under the RTI. The timeline, the legal obligations and any kind of clarity around the exceptions seems to be lacking.”   
“In addition to this the state needs to focus on getting its record management in order, which means classifying documents according to whatever index they chose. There are several principles involved in this classification. One is that the state needs to understand that RTI across the world is supposed to be guided by maximum disclosure. It is a matter of giving information as much as possible, whenever possible. Secondly, proactive disclosure, which is where you don’t wait for a request, nor for an interference but you proactively disclose information. Thirdly, is to preserve credibility. For instance, if there was a document with a 100 pages and one page contains the information that the requester needs, the rest too had to be disclosed. So when classifying documents and managing records you need to ensure that credibility is maintained. And later on there needs to be a perception stage from the establishment in order to proceed, which is one of openness and accountability and one that affords protection to honest officials who are accountable and transparent within the RTI framework. The RTI is not only about exposing corruption, it is also about giving retribution to officers who are doing their jobs right.” She added  

Changes to come

Speaking of the kind of changes the country can expect if the Act is implemented properly Pinto-Jayawardena said, “We can expect transparency in government and even in the non-government sector along with the corporate and private sector that utilize public money. The Act emphasizes a common principle of accountability that goes beyond the government. Since it was operational, family members of the disappeared in the North and the East to people who have been dispossessed of their land have been across the board filing RTI requests. In the South, parents are filing RTI requests in relation to their children not being admitted to school. The media is using it in terms of investigative reporting.Some provincial politicians have released details of official and personal travel under RTI. The Commissioner of Elections has released financial records of political parties. The Moratuwa Municipal Council, distinguishing itself among municipalities, has proactively given information on its projects and promised to have a dedicated website on RTI.The use of RTI has been quite diverse and I think that is a very positive factor that we have seen in the past couple of months.“  
Speaking of how the Act can benefit society, Mr. Ranasinghe said, “If the people use it properly, things such as misappropriation of funds, corruption, misuse of public property should reduce as the people can audit the public authorities. On the other hand people can get results immediately. People can ask relevant authorities about the delays such as collection of garbage, district lighting, supply of water, etc. It can increase the efficiency of the public services and public authorities. People can get answers to their grievances and problems in the area. This will also increase the transparency and accountability of the public sector. However, it’ll take another 5/6 years to turn the society to that culture.”  
Touching on why the Act is important, Ms. Sankhitha Gunaratne stated, “One is that RTI is a public agent for information to be disclosed. That is on the premise the information held by the state is the information held in trust on behalf of the citizens. It is the citizens that vote and transfer their power and it is the citizens who pay for the services. In that context, it is the citizens that need to call the shots on how exactly this power that is transferred is used. The Act gives the control that has been given to the state back to the citizens through accountability and transparency so that they can see how our government works. In addition to that it is one of the main tools in transparency and it is also one of the main tools which helps us to participate in the governance.”   
“How the RTI will affect us depends on how we implement it. If we implement the Act properly, it will be the best tool for transparency. It is good for the monitoring process in the name of public interest and it also means that there will be very few limitations to the availability of information to the public.” added Ms. Radika Gunaratne  

Complaints on the RTI

Ms. Radika Gunaratne further stated that,“The RTI helpline, run by the SLPI, is where citizens can call in order to receive guidance on how to file RTI requests and place their complaints on the RTI. We advise people on how and where they can get information from. Most of the calls in the first two weeks were mainly about the construction of roads and the admission of children to government schools. Afterwards people started to complain about how they were not given the information that they had requested for and that the procedures were not followed by the relevant institutions. Now people are getting discouraged. We advise people that if they go to the relevant organizations they will be able to get the information they require. However, practically this doesn’t happen. Under the Act in Section 23 (a) (1) it states that the Head or Chief Officer will automatically be the information officer if the institution does not have one. However, people face a hurdle here too. Thus, people are getting more and more discouraged by this. The problem is that the public authorities are not ready for this yet.”  
Mr. Ranasinghe further said that the Ministry too have received a number of complaints “ Some organizations are not giving the information. Most complaints are regarding the police department, some national schools and the Road Development Authority. But if those authorities are not cooperating, the citizen should complain to the Commission. The Commission is the appealing authority. Our Ministry does not have the power to hold the institutions responsible. The citizen should appeal to the independent Commission, which is at the BMICH. The Commission will take the necessary action regarding the information.”

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