Right to information legislation (RTI), also referred to as freedom of information or access to information laws, establishes a general presumption that all information held by government should be accessible and set out the mechanisms by which is can be accessed.
The case for ensuring access to information is that it supports good governance, effective and efficient public administration, compliance with laws and regulations, efforts to combat corruption and better investment climates. There is emerging evidence to support this, however there remains a lack of systematic assessments of RTI policies and whether and how they are translating into greater government transparency and participation in decision-making (Calland, 2010).
Open, participatory and accountable government is contingent on members of the public having access to information held by public bodies. The right to information is protected through the guarantees of freedom of expression found in the main international human rights treaties. This has been recognised by international human rights tribunals (Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights) and leading international authorities (including all four special mandates on freedom of expression at the UN, OAS, OSCE and African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the Inter-American Juridical Committee) as well as the UN Human Rights Committee (Mendel, 2008).
A key principle of Right to Information is that of ‘maximum disclosure’’. Information should only be withheld from the public where absolutely necessary to prevent harm to a legitimate interest and where there is no overriding public interest in knowing the information.
As of June 2013, 95 countries have adopted RTI laws, a massive increase from the 13 countries which had these laws in 1990. However, experience has shown that while the passage of the law is often a high-profile effort by its political champions, the key challenge is to maintain the political momentum needed for effective implementation (Dokenia, 2013).
This topic has been prepared by prepared by Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe and and Toby Mendel of the Centre for Law and Democracy with comments by Venkatesh Nayak of the Human Rights Initiative, Rachel Rank of Publish What You Fund, David Goldberg, Andres Meija, Allison Tilley of Open Democracy Advice Centre, Codru Vrabie, Javier Casas of Suma Ciudana, Carole Excell of the Access Initiative, Mark Weiler, Luis F. Esquivel and Marcos Mendiburu of the World Bank Institute and Tania Sánchez Andrade of IFAI, Mexico.
Examples in Practice
23 countries have recently adopted RTI laws which reflect the progress made in international standard setting
23 countries obtained scores of 100 points or more out of a possible 150 points on the RTI Rating. The average age of the laws in the top 20 countries is just 5 years. Features of the stronger laws include that they establish clear procedures for requesters and have strong oversight bodies.
A Canadian government website provides the public with information about the government’s access to information and privacy programmes
In Canada, the Info Source website provides the public with information about the government’s access to information and privacy programmes. The primary purpose of Info Source is to assist individuals exercise their rights under the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act. Info Source also supports the federal government’s commitment to facilitating access to information regarding its activities.
Brazil has developed an online platform to process information requests
e-SIC – Brazil’s online information requests portal – allows users to request information from all federal government agencies, receive responses, and file an appeal if the user does not agree with the response or if the request was denied. The main topics on which information has been requested are economics/finance, social security, and education, and as of August 2014, requests had been received from 76 percent of the country’s 5,570 municipalities.
The online portal was launched in 2012, on the same day that Brazil’s Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information came into effect. Six months before full implementation of this law the Brazilian Federal Government decided to use a centralized system as the official channel for processing information requests. This strategy ensured that every public agency would have a tool for processing requests when the law entered into full force.
The Office of the Comptroller General is in charge of the platform. After the first prototype of the platform had been developed, consultations with other government agencies and civil society took place, which led to improvements in the system and helped to optimize its implementation.
The request and response functions, as well as the first level of appeals, were the first e-SIC features to become operational. Since then, regular improvements have been made and the system continues to be updated. The platform now includes all the options for filing an appeal and requesting reports, as well as full Web service, among other functions.
More than 850 people in 150 government agencies and organizations received training before the platform was launched. They were also given a five-day trial period to interact with the system before it was released for public use. As for promoting the site, the Office of the Comptroller General prepared and published a handbook with simple instructions on how to use the platform intended for both government personnel and the general public.
Chile’s transparency portal brings together open datasets and information requests
Adopted in 2009, Chile’s Public Information Access Law or Transparency Law, dictates that on a monthly basis, the government and all related bodies such as the Senate, Chambers of Congress, the Central Bank, the Judicial Powers, the armed forces and the municipalities, must publish key information including lists of staff, salaries and benefits, organisational structure, budget, expenses, revenue, details about trips, and about the businesses contracted by the government. Government bodies also have to respond to all citizen requests for information within a 20-day period.
In 2013 the Transparency Portal of the State of Chile was launched, through a joint effort between the General Secretariat of the Presidency and the Council for Transparency. Citizens are able to find proactively disclosed open datasets and make and track requests for information under the transparency law.
The portal makes it easier for citizens to ask for public information, encouraging people to use the transparency law in an active way. By bringing all the information requests together it enables statistical information to be collected,and provides a help desk to advance in the promotion of the right of access to public information in Chile.
Georgia issued a decree requiring proactive publication of government information
Civil society organisations in Georgia have long been concerned that the country’s Freedom of Information act was not strongly implemented.Information requests had to mailed in, and sometimes were ignored or responded to with incomplete information.
However, on 1 September, 2013, the government issued a decree on Electronic Request and Proactive Publication of Public Information. This Decree, which is based on the recommendations from a group of civil society organizations obliges all agencies under the supervision of the Executive to release information on their activities electronically, free of charge and in easy-to-use, open format. The decree sets out seven categories of information for proactive disclosure:
- General information on the public agency – its structure, functions, founding documents, annual reports, strategies, action plans, as well as biographies and contact details of the leadership and the staff;
- Names and contact details of FOI officers, relevant regulations, procedures and forms of appeal, FOI reports and statistics;
- Employment vacancy announcements, rules of competition, results of the competition and procedures for appealing these results, number and categories of the employed staff
- Procurement plans and tenders
- Budgets and details of staff remuneration, expenditures, grants and public assets
- Laws and official documents pertaining to the activities of the public agency
- Information on the services, taxes, fees and other revenues of the public agency
The list of information requirements was developed as a result of a series of consultations between civil society organizations and the government. An electronic request system is being developed for additional information.
The decree only applies to central government and its agencies. Parliament, the judiciary, elected local bodies – and the independent regulators do not have to comply but can choose to do so voluntarily.
In Bulgaria all units of the Ministry of Interior must publish data on FOI requests
Under a special bylaw of the Minister of the Interior in implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, all units of the Ministry of Interior were obliged in March 21,2011 to publish annually aggregate numbers about the requests they receive under the FOI act and to how many of them they actually grant information. (Art.46 of Internal Rules and Procedures for the Activity of the Ministry of the Interior in Implementation of the FOI Act, Adopted with an Order of the Minister of the Interior No I-z-771 of March 21,2011.
In Canada rules on the right to information are overseen by the Department of Justice
This function for managing right to information, in Canada, served by the Department of Justice
In Nicaragua right to information is incorporated into school curricula by law
The Nicaraguan RTI law – Law of Access to Public Information from 2007 – provides for the incorporation of the right to information into school curricula at all levels and for the establishment of a national centre for research and teaching on the right to information.
In Slovenia, all secrecy provisions are laid out in the Classified Information Act
The Slovenian Classified Information Act from 2006 covers all secrecy provisions in Slovenia. The Information Commissioner of Slovenia has also provided extensive interpretation of the exemption on ‘secret information’, namely that it can only be information that complies with the definition and standards in the secrecy law.
In Sweden, all secrecy provisions are concentrated in one law: the Secrecy Act
In Sweden, the updated Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act from 2009 replaced the old access to information act from 1980. All secrecy provisions are stated in this Act.
India has central and state level information commissions
Mexico has a system to systematically track statistics on requests and responsiveness from federal agencies
In Mexico, the Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (IFAI) has set up a system to systematically track statistics on requests and responsiveness from federal agencies.
Federal agencies have incentives to comply with access to information legislation because their response to information requests is permanently monitored by the IFAI. Also, heads of agencies have an incentive to be well evaluated as the IFAI’s evaluations are public. No agency wants to be listed as a poor performer.
The IFAI has developed monitoring indicators to access the extent to which federal agencies fulfil the procedures established in the transparency law and provide responses to information requests. Different methodologies – quantitative, qualitative and the ‘mystery shopper’ methodology – are used to assess compliance and analyse the state of access to information in Mexico. Official figures on the extent to which public agencies provide information in response to individuals’ requests show an overall positive response rate.
Mexico has put in place electronic systems to facilitate RTI
Mexico has put in place three key electronic systems to facilitate RTI:
- Infomex: an electronic platform for making information requests and submitting complaints and appeals. When requests are presented in writing and in person, they are transferred into the e-platform by a staff member so that they can be registered by the system. According to IFAI, 97 percent of all requests were received electronically.
- ZOOM: a tool for searching the database of requests that have been made and answers provided. Each government agency is required to set a link to the ZOOM on their websites.
- POT: a standardised system for accessing the information which is published proactively by public bodies. Users can search through this data by keyword or by type of transparency obligation, thereby providing easy comparison of the data across different public bodies.
Mexico has set up a federal institute for access to information (IFAI)
The institution supporting right to information legislation is, in the case of Mexico, the Instituto Federal de Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos (Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection or IFAI).
Mexico’s access to information law provides for proactive disclosure of information
Mexico’s Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information (2002) establishes that frequent requests should result in proactive disclosure of information. It requires public bodies to publish “relevant and useful information,” and specifies that one way to determine this category is that it “corresponds to the most frequent questions made by the public.” The sophisticated electronic request-tracking system developed in Mexico helps to capture data on frequent requests.
Norway has developed an electronic public records tool, which is used by central government agencies to publicise their public records online, and which is open for everyone to use
Norway’s Electronic Public Records (Offentlig Elektronisk Postjournal or OEP) was developed in the late 1990s by the agency that later evolved into the Agency for Public Management and eGovernment. Originally a password-protected database, the OEP was developed to enable journalists to access public information. Its creation was made possible by the launch of the Noark 3 standard in 1994, which established a standard method of generating and uploading metadata through Electronic Document and Records Management Systems (EDRMS).
The OEP was updated in May 2010 as part of the Norwegian government’s commitment to transparency and democracy under the Freedom of Information Act. While the previous OEP enabled public information to be sought by journalists and scientists, the new OEP can be used by any person with internet access.
The OEP is a collaborative tool which central government agencies, approximately 100 of them, use to publicise their public records online. Public records data is stored in a searchable database from which the public can locate case documents and send requests to the agency responsible for that particular case. The agencies themselves then process the requests sent to them via OEP, and reply to users directly.
The OEP only contains documents from the period after May 2010 and the old, password protected, version is still running parallel to the new OEP. By the end of 2012, the new OEP contained over five million registry entries published by 105 government agencies, processing about 20,000 information requests a month. The greatest number of requests comes from journalists (50%). Citizens and businesses make 22% of requests, public employees 21% and researchers 3%.
Serbia, India and Slovenia tops the RTI Rating
South Africa’s right to information law covers both public and private bodies
The South African right to information law, the Promotion of Access to Information Act from 2000, applies to both information held by public bodies and information held by private bodies in so far as the information is necessary for the exercise or protection of other rights.
The Indian Right to Information Act lists the types of information that must be published on a proactive basis
Section 4 of the Indian Right to Information Act from 2005 provides a long list of types of information that must be published on a proactive basis, as well as mechanisms to ensure that this is accessible to those who need to access it.
The Peruvian Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information contains extensive proactive publication obligations
Title IV of the Peruvian Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information contains extremely detailed and extensive proactive publication obligations, particularly in the area of public finances, upon which it focuses.
The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has developed a set of training materials for use in the public sector
The website of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office includes a wide set of training materials, including short films on how to manage personal information, and how to comply with the UK Data Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act, and the Environmental Information Regulations.
The UK publishes quarterly and annual reports on the number of FOI requests, response and appeals
The UK government publishes quarterly and annual statistics covering approximately 40 departments of state and other monitored bodies with significant policy-making, regulatory or information- handling functions. Recent data suggest that between three-quarters and nine-tenths of all requests receive a response within the required time frame and that performance has improved in recent years.
The US Federal Register website provides information on citizen rights and obligations and actions of federal agencies, and provides a forum for public participation in the democratic process
The website is administered jointly by the Office of the Federal Register of the National Archives and Records Administration and the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Uganda has launched an online portal to support citizens’ right to information
The Ask Your Gov Uganda was launched in August 2014, allowing citizens to directly send requests for information to Government departments, ministries and agencies. Responses to information requests are then sent by email to the person making the request as well as posted on the portal. The portal includes information on the number of requests received per government entity, a list of recently released information, and a search engine with information on over 100 information requests. The public can also make information requests via the portal. It was developed by the Office of the Prime Minister in partnership with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC).