Stop selling that frivolous argument

When you oppose something, usually it is assumed that your opposition is backed by a reason. And depending on the situation, your reasoning can be based on either your experience or some study or data. But what of you are talking just in the air without any justification whatsoever to back your argument? Who is going to believe you in that case?

Five public five public authorities including the prime minister’o Office (PMO) have said that they have never received any ‘frivolous’ application under the right to application (RTI) act in the last five years- that is, since the time of enactment of the act. The response nails the government’s lie that the act should be amendment to discourage frivolous applications.

Other four public authorities include the supreme court, ministry of external affairs (MEA), department of personal and training (DoPT)- the nodal department for the implementation of the transparency act and the Indian embassy in Washington DC.

The information has been obtained by Noida based RTI activist Commodore (Rtd.) Lokesh K Batra and Los Angeles resident Vishal Kudchadakar over a period of six months.

It makes official, what we always knew- that the government does not have any substantial data or survey of any kind to back its ‘frivolous applications’ argument. It is based on the experiences of public information officers (PIOs) who are of the opinion that people are misusing the act by demanding trivial information, supplying which, is sheer wasted of manpower and resources.

Babus dealing with RTI queries have been found giving this excuse in almost every meeting conducted to discuss amendments in transparency act

Just for the sake of argument, let us assume that frivolous and vexatious applications are increasing the workload of government departments.

In this case, who will decide what is frivolous? Considering that there are thousands of public authorities (departments covered under the RTI act) across the country, will the definitions of vexatious vary from one office to another?

Webster’s dictionary defines ‘frivolous’ as something characterized by lack of seriousness or sense or self-indulgently carefree.

Something which is very serious in nature for me can lack of seriousness for you. How can someone else categorise matters of seriousness on my behalf?

Suppose, I have faired well in an examination but the results does not reflect so. I believe that something is wrong and want to see my answer sheet. This is something extremely important for me, but can be frivolous for the staff of the institution. They might say that allowing one student to scrutinize his answer sheet might set a wrong precedent.

Therefore, it is time the government stopped giving the ‘frivolous argument’ while discussing changes in the RTI act and came up with some logic.

This appeared on http://www.governancenow.com on May 16, 2011


Transparency be default

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of information which a public authority has to provide under the Right to Information (RTI) Act – information sought by the applicant by filing application under the act and information made available suo-moto (without somebody asking for it).

While the situation appears to be somewhat fine with the former category, it is the latter which is still in the nascent stage even after five years of the enactment of the act.

Section 4 ofd the law mentions 17 types of information which the public authorities (bodies covered under the RTI Act) are supposed to display in a manner where the public can access it.

For long, civil society representatives have highlighted that the suo moto disclosure under section 4 was dismal across the country.

The good news is that finally the government has finally acknowledged this reality and has turned to civil society for help in better implementation of suo-moto disclosure.

The department of personnel and training (DoPT), the nodal agency for the implementation of the act, through an office memorandum, dated May 6, constituted a task force for effective implementation of section 4.

The 12-member task force includes representatives of DoPT, ministry of law, three state secretaries involved in enforcing the act and five representatives of civil society.

The task force will finalise its recommendations by the end of this month and submit the same to the DoPT for consideration.

What transpired during the first meeting of the task force held on May 25 provides insights to various aspects related to voluntary disclosure of information by the public authorities.

Here are some of the views which emanated from the meeting which took place at the capital’s North Block:

–    The weak implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act is partly due to the fact that certain provisions of this section have not been fully detailed. In case of some other provisions, there is need for laying down detailed guidelines as to what information needs to be provided and in which form.

–    Public authorities are not averse to suo-moto disclosure. It is a question of what to put and how to put it. There has to be a move from the minimal to the aspirational level in public disclosures.

–    There is a need for developing a culture of information gathering. Collated information should be provided at various levels such as ward level, municipal corporation level and panchayat level.

–    The manner in which information is displayed needs to be changed.  The information should be in such a form and language as to be decipherable by the lowest strata of society.

–    All Plan schemes of the government should make it mandatory to reflect implementation of section 4.

–    There should be a provision of compensation in cases where section 4 is not implemented.

–     The mindset change should be from transparency by design rather than transparency by default. There is a need for open standards in e-governance.

–    There needs to be fixing of responsibility in case of noncompliance of Section 4 by the public authorities.

–    Public accountability mechanisms have to be defined such as uploading information and it’s monitoring in the various MIS which have been developed. These are essential for the systems to work. An ideal example is present in the MIS updates in Andhra Pradesh under the MGNREGA.

–    There is a need to ensure that all new laws had consistency with the RTI Act and there should be guidelines on what should be included.

–    The government has to find more ways of disseminating information like harnessing the strength of mobile, radio, cyber cafes.

–    There should be a centralised monitoring authority in compliance of Section 4 in every ministry/ department. There should be access to information through cyber cafe in district level and where the information is not available one can proceed to file an RTI application.

How many of the above ideas will be accepted by the government is yet to be seen. But the discussions certainly seem to move to an era of where the government offices will no longer be able to hide information on the pretext of it being confidential.

This appeared on http://www.governancenow.com on July 25, 2011

http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/transparency-default