Making executive FOI work

The Freeman

Less than a month after taking office, President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday signed an executive order on freedom of information.

I applaud the Duterte administration for leading the way in FOI through this executive order. The most difficult challenge to any FOI system is, of course, how to make it work. The entrenched bureaucratic culture might resist it.

But I have full confidence in the President's avowed commitment to make government more transparent and accountable. Such confidence stems from his public service record and forthright character, matched by an earthy demeanor that inspires either hate or admiration.

I just hope that the men and women in the bureaucracy, from the Cabinet secretaries to the office clerks, will likewise faithfully tread the path laid down by the FOI executive order.

The order states: "Every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for public development."

Naturally, there are exceptions to the access to information. What these are, we don't know yet. The Department of Justice and the Solicitor General have 30 days to make a list. I assume it will only be in the category of national security and personal privacy. Otherwise, a broad list can easily scuttle the spirit of FOI.

What makes the President's FOI order remarkable is that it creates a legal presumption in favor of access to information. It means that the government agency must explain to the person requesting the information, or justify before a court of law if there is a legal challenge, why the information should not be disclosed. Or else, any information should be accessible.

The procedure in filing and processing a request for access to information is the tricky part. The person requesting information on the use of public funds, for example, can find himself in a legal labyrinth in the hands of a crafty administrator. The latter can conveniently cross-reference to other laws, rules or regulations that deny public access to information. Bad record-keeping and archiving can also delay access to information.

Unfortunately, there is no independent commission or special body to monitor and ensure compliance to FOI.

Note also that the administrative liability on erring officials is not mandatory. Section 15 of the Executive Order used the permissive word "may," in referring to the imposition of administrative and disciplinary sanctions.

Indeed, there are one too many ways to weaken the executive FOI. Then again, there are also many ways to strengthen it.

For starters, we must continue to lobby for a more potent FOI law that will cover not just the executive department but also the judiciary and legislative departments, as well as local government units.

FOI requires the constant vigilance of the people, the mass media, and civil society in asserting FOI and making it work for the public interest.

I also echo UNESCO's suggestion that information and communication technology can enhance FOI. "Open data or proactive transparency reduces the burden of responding to information requests on hard-pressed public authorities," says UNESCO.

Why FOI? Access to information on matters of public concern is important to prevent and combat corruption, protect our freedom, and improve public service.



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