Fighting the war on secrecy on a shoestring budget

This may come as a surprise to many, even some in the media, that a Right to Information Department exists in Punjab, that too in a very posh area of its provincial capital, Lahore.

The office resides inside a villa and reads Punjab Information Commission. To call the establishment a shambles would be apt – there are only five employees and very little furniture.

“About a year ago we asked for 150 staff members, of which, 73 were approved. To date, we have received only one,” RTI Commissioner Ahmed Raza told Pakistan Today.

The current staff of the commission includes one assistant director and five employees who are engaged on daily wage basis as support staff. The commission has not been able to get more staff, despite its repeated requests to the Information & Culture Department.

The commission can’t engage its own staff until its service rules are approved. The commission had forwarded the draft Service Rules for the approval of competent authority in May 2015.

The commission has faced many challenges in terms of setting up its office, procurements and engaging a required number of staff. Its initial budget was approved in October 2014 and its office became functional in June 2015.

The Punjab Information Commission was established in March 2014 to ensure implementation of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013. Its responsibilities include public awareness about the Act, training of public information officers and to redress grievances of citizens seeking information.

Ahmed Raza confirms that only a quarter of the budget asked for was given to the commission, even after repeated requests. “We required about Rs 44 million, to go about our daily jobs, get transport for the workers and meet other expenditures.”

Despite the challenges, the commission drafted the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Rules 2014, which were notified by the government of Punjab in January 2015. It has also notified the Schedule of Cost, Guidelines for Public Information Officers and Transparency Standards for the Prisons Department.

Although the commission didn’t have a functional office until June 2015, it had started working and deciding complaints from their own homes. As a result, by the end of June 2015, the commission had decided around 600 complaints out the total 1200 that it had received. Moreover, the commission was able to train 354 officers at MPDD and develop its website, besides making efforts to set up an office and making related procurements.

The total number of complaints received by the commission is over 1,800, out of which over 1,000 have been resolved or decided. In almost all cases, the commission directed public bodies to disclose information to complainants. “We have had the police, prisons, CM Secretariat and even the PM House answer to the public,” Raza said. The details of the cases and the documents are available on their website.

Other departments inquired upon include the Punjab Assembly, the judicial academy, provincial secretaries, commissioners, universities, the bank of Punjab and DCOs etc.

“A culture of secrecy persists and the public bodies make their utmost efforts to delay or wrongfully deny information, despite the legal changes and repeated directions of the commission,” said Chief Information Commissioner Mazhar Hussain Minhas. “This situation is not likely to change in the short term unless the heads of public bodies realise the importance of transparency and make concrete efforts to ensure efficient implementation of the Act.”

“When the press information officers (PIOs) were appointed at first, the departments hired clerks. We had to send them notices that the PIO should be a grade 16 employee or above,” Minhas said.

An important challenge in terms of implementation of the act is the lack of public awareness as well as lack of training of government officers. In this regard, the commission implemented a media campaign in June 2015 but it has not been provided with sufficient funds to run another campaign in 2015-16.

“The payments to the media houses weren’t made on time, hence the advertisements were shut down,” said the official.

However, the commission is trying to perform this important function through use of social media and by engaging the print and electronic media. Similarly, Management and Professional Development Department (MPDD) showed reluctance in conducting training of public information officers in 2015-16, so the commission has established partnerships with some civil society organisations to provide trainings. Over 100 officers have been trained in partnership with PILDAT since June 2015.

“The passing of the Act shows the government’s seriousness. But the bureaucracy has become a barrier in the working of the RTI,” Ahmed Raza said.

RTI can be reached at their office, through PIOs appointed at various public sectors or through their website. Anyone can get any information on any public departments unless it affects national interest, privacy or can be a threat to someone’s life or health.

No NIC is required, you do not need to be educated or literate or belong to any particular group or party, “It is information to all on everything, with very few, common sense exceptions. We are trying to bring about a new era of information for the people,” says Information Commissioner Mukhtar Ahmad Ali.

Ali boasted that if given the opportunity and resources, the Punjab Right to information commission could perform better than KP RTI department. “The KP RTI body consists of about 40 employees; they have a proper staff and an office. Even though we do not have all these facilities we have been able to do a lot of good work,” Ali said.

Punjab Information Secretary Momin Ali Agha refused to comment on the issue, saying he was busy in some official work.


Originally Published in Pakistan Today

 

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