ON 12 May 2005, the keenly awaited Right to Information Bill was finally passed by the Rajya Sabha. With the Presidents assent, the Bill will finally come into force as the new national Right to Information Act 2005. This overwhelming success comes after hectic lobbying by civil society with the United Progressive Alliance. One year ago, the UPAs Common Minimum Programme promised to provide transparent and accountable government by making the national RTI law more progressive, participatory and meaningful. To a large extent, the government has redeemed that promise. The new RTI law is a much improved version of the old Freedom of Information Act 2002, which was passed by the previous government but never implemented.
Notably, the new law contains a provision which explicitly states that the act will come into force within 120 days of enactment. This means that there will be only four months to prepare for implementation once Presidential assent is received. In real terms, implementation poses a huge challenge to government the new law covers both central, state, local and panchayat government agencies. Applicable to the whole of India (with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir), ensuring that all offices throughout the country are prepared in time is no small task. Both the central government and all of the state and union territory governments will need to get to work immediately to bed down the key provisions of the act and ensure that all offices are prepared to process applications from the public as soon as possible.
* The new all India Right to Information law [RTI] is probably one of the most important laws to be passed since Independence. Its successful implementation is directly linked to the level of commitment within government: especially the commitment of the political leadership and the bureaucracy. This in turn directly correlates with their knowledge and understanding of the beneficial effects the new RTI Act will have on overall governance. It is therefore imperative that there be immediate and wide-scale dissemination of knowledge about the law and also assistance provided for all the many queries and concerns that will naturally arise. The burden and enormity of the tasks ahead will be much ameliorated when civil society and government collaborate on working through strategic initiatives designed for effective implementation.
* The new RTI law creates obligations for both states and centre and sets up implementation and monitoring mechanisms for both. It is therefore important to maximise as much uniformity as possible in the way in which the act functions. An early national conference of chief ministers and/or chief secretaries should be called to disseminate knowledge of the new law and to work through implementation and harmonisation. Never forgetting that this act, besides underpinning administrative reforms, enables a human right to be realized, this conference should establish an empowered committee to look into creating easy to use common modalities that the people of the country, wherever they are, end up with same right with similar rules and processes.
* The nodal agency responsible for implementation of the act must design an implementation process that is inclusive and therefore works in collaboration with multiple stakeholders, including state nodal agencies, other key departments (eg. panchayat raj, finance, law, social development), administrative training institutes, civil society, the media, academics, international RTI officials.
* As a first step, an Action Plan for Implementation should be collaboratively developed as a matter of absolute priority. The outlines of this can be more quickly laid out through the above-mentioned conference.
* The action plan should identify what systems and tools will need to be developed/produced to support implementation, e.g. guidance notes for officials, IT monitoring systems, forms, template responses, etc.
* Rules should be developed participatorily and should be open for public comment.
* A consistent set of rules should be developed across the country to minimise implementation confusion.
* PIOs and appellate authorities need to be identified and trained as a matter of priority.
* Records management and archiving need to reviewed and improved as necessary.
* Leadership for ensuring effective proactive disclosure should come from chief ministers, chief secretaries with the heads of department directly responsible for implementation and the Information Commissions responsible for monitoring.
* A directory of PIOs and other key officials responsible for implementing the act should be collated and published as matter of absolute priority.
* Information should be updated regularly, although how often depends on the nature of information (e.g. information on subsidies or concessions, which is both important for the public and constantly changing, needs to be updated immediately).
* Need guidelines on minimum requirements regarding content of each proactive disclosure obligations and the methods of publication.
* Consider an additional requirement via the rules that where certain information is repeatedly requested or is of particular public interest, it should be proactively disclosed.
* Clarify the structure of the commission will it operate as a collegiate body making decisions by majority or with individual commissioners and commission staff making decisions?
* Select Information Commissioners through a process which is as transparent and open as possible.
* Give the information commissions operational and budget autonomy (including their own line item in the national budget).
* Permit information commissions to employ staff from outside the public service to ensure that staff have appropriate expertise on the subject.
* Empower information commissions to make their own procedural rules.
* Develop clear process guidelines to ensure that decisions are made in a consistent manner and with proper oversight over final outcomes.
* Set in place systems, guidelines and processes to ensure that all officials with duties under the law know how to discharge their functions properly.
* Clarify the application process, in particular how application receipts will be given, how fees will be paid, how Assistant PIOs and PIOs will interact, etc.
* Clarify how appellate authorities will be appointed and supported in their duties.
* Clarify how appellate authorities and information commissions are expected to function, in terms of their hearing processes, their outreach, the interaction between the various commissioners, etc.
* Clarify how PIOs, AAs, and information commissions are to be encouraged to make consistent decisions (e.g. by developing guidance notes, process manuals, casework guidelines and capturing decisions for future reference).
* The training division of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) should be the lead agency for coordinating the training programme for the PIOs, appellate authorities and other government officials across the country.
* The DoPT needs to develop a training strategy as a matter of immediate priority. The strategy should identify who will have responsibility both for undertaking training, monitoring the implementation of the training programme, and preparing training modules and materials. It should be time-bound.
* Training should be done in a cascade mode which works on the model of training of trainers. As soon as possible, an initial batch of trainers should be drawn from all the states and trained by DoPT as an absolute priority. These trainers would then be tasked to take responsibility for leading training for PIOs and appellate authorities in their respective states.
* Central and state government training institutes along with civil society organisations should also be supported to carry out training for officials.
* Clarify within each public authority who will be responsible for managing, monitoring and interfacing with the information commission and nodal agency.
* Set in place application and appeals monitoring systems (whether paper-based or computerised) from the outset, to ensure that proper information can be collected for the annual reports required to be produced by the information commissions.
* Give information commissions the power to initiative their own complaints (even in the absence of a complaint) so that they can monitor and, where necessary, investigate patterns of non-compliance and not just individual cases.
* Individual departments at the Centre and in the states should be responsible for implementing outreach strategies, e.g. through their publicity/information sections.
* At the district level, district magistrates, revenue officers and panchayat representatives should be made responsible for outreach.
* Partnerships with civil society are crucial need to utilise civil society networks when undertaking public outreach activities.
* Need a detailed dissemination plan which prioritises which information needs to be disseminated most urgently and in what form.
* Need a detailed media plan so that the mass media are utilised to the greatest extent possible.
* Rural people are the most critical target. Approaching them will take a long time though, such that strategies need to be developed for outreach in both the short and longer term.
Indicative Best Practices
The national workshop which brought together RTI activists and officials from both India and abroad identified not only challenges to successful implementation, but also highlighted some innovative best practices to strengthen transparency and accountability.
Preparing for implementation
Throughout the conference, resource people and participants repeatedly stressed the importance of institutionalising collaborative, strategic partnerships, both as a means of encouraging buy-in from all stakeholders, but also as a smart way of maximising scarce resources to greatest effect.
The Jamaican experience provided an excellent case study. In Jamaica, the Access to Implementation Unit (ATI Unit), set up under the prime ministers office, developed an implementation strategy which prioritised inclusion. It was at the outset recognised that scarce resources for implementation would need to be creatively utilised to stretch further. One strategy was to draw in other government agencies with complementary mandates, such as the Information Department, Social Development Department, Consumer Affairs Group and the Records Office (a critical group because without easy retrieval and ordered records, implementation would be easily undermined). Jamaica also has an intricate matrix of local government infrastructure and this has been utilised for implementation as well.
As a unit working as part of government, the ATI Unit recognised that the historical suspicion between government and civil society needed to be overcome, because civil society partnerships are essential. Accordingly, immediately upon commencement of the act, the ATI Unit sent out introductory letters to MPs, the opposition, civil society groups, human rights organisations, educational groups and the media. The unit was keen to devise a collaborative rather than a confrontational strategy for working with NGOs. Institutionally, this objective was taken forward by the establishment of a stakeholders advisory group, comprising civil society, media and government representatives (including the responsible minister on occasion). The groups terms of reference include assisting the government with implementation, monitoring and making recommendations for improvements. With such wide representation, the ATI Unit has found that there is less suspicion from civil society and government.
Guidelines to facilitate access
In Mexico, a heavy emphasis was put on systems. The priority for the government and commission was to set in place an easy, accessible, robust system that could withstand the pressure of more and more requests as the system was entrenched. Mexico developed a unique IT application and appeals processing system (called SISI) which allows requesters to lodge their applications and appeals via the internet. In this way, they are assured of a receipt with a reference number, and their application is automatically directed to the relevant public office. Since the act came into force two years ago, the government has received approximately 70,000 requests and 92% were made on-line. Very few Mexicans have the internet but a computer with internet is closer to more Mexicans than the federal capital which is where the government is based. Recognising this, the commission has worked with civil society and other agencies to agree on MOUs to allow people to use their computers to make applications.
In Jamaica, the ATI Unit requires departments to submit monthly and quarterly reports which the unit reviews. They also issue Report Cards as part of their annual report, and have found them quite useful, because no public body wants to look bad and it can be quite embarrassing for ministers who need to defend their ministries. The ATI Unit also gets reports from the ATI Advisory Group of Stakeholders and other individual civil society leaders, which feed into their monitoring reports. RTI compliance is also included in the regular departmental evaluations that are undertaken. In the UK, the Information Commissions monitoring is usually focused around the complaints they receive. However, they can also undertake Assessments (which are like audits), but only if invited to do so by a public authority. Consideration could be given to giving the Information Commissions the power to conduct audit whenever they want.
Recently, under the aegis of CHRI (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative), an international NGO, a national workshop on Effective Implementation: preparing to operationalise the Right to Information Act 2005 was held in Delhi. This is an executive summary of the report of the workshop.
The report was prepared by Charmaine Rodrigues, Mandakini Devasher and Sohini Paul, CHRI.
For the full report, log on to www.humanrightsinitiative.org