The Right to Information Act Debuts in Sri Lanka
Multi-party support, and a broad-based coalition, paved the way for Sri Lanka’s RTI. “The RTI is seen by Sri Lankans as a step toward a more transparent and accountable government, and we are working toward ensuring that information is made available in an efficient and non-discriminatory way,” says Gayantha Karunathilaka, Sri Lanka’s former Minister of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media. He adds: “However, the RTI act’s real success will lie in changing mind sets; to request for information and share information relevant for development impact.”
Under the RTI act, a public institution can be petitioned to provide information. This might mean revealing internal details—for instance, the cost of a project or how a tender was awarded. An RTI request could also cover data gathered by a ministry as part of its activities.
Sri Lanka’s RTI is already being put to the test. Diverse requests have been filed, from questions relating to how investments are made for the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) to how soil and sand mining permits have been allotted in districts like Gampaha.
The RTI doesn’t guarantee open access to all information. Certain exemptions apply, such as when an issue is deemed to be a matter of national security. However, when in doubt, people will be able to seek the intervention of the RTI commission.
A Strategic Implementation Plan
Over the coming years, the Sri Lankan state faces the huge task of revamping its record management processes. A cadre of information officers are being trained and the legal framework will be updated keeping in mind the provisions of the RTI. To keep track of its progress, effective monitoring and evaluation strategies are needed. Corporates and NGOs have their own responsibilities to meet.
Public information officers will be stationed at every public authority to handle RTI requests. Individuals can submit a request, pay a fee and expect an answer within 14 days. When the request relates to the life and personal liberty of a citizen, information officers are compelled to respond to a request within 48 hours. You can be confident in making an RTI request: if an information officer refuses to release the information, they must be able to provide a valid reason, or legal penalties may apply. Over the coming years, this process will be refined to make it more efficient and easy to use.
On May 5, the RTI commission released a Strategic Implementation Plan for the work of the commission with support from the World Bank. This ‘living document’ will serve as a template for the effective implementation of the RTI over the next three years, and will be subject to regular reviews. “The government needs to work to demystify this process, while the people must take ownership of it,” says Mahinda Gammanpila, chairman of the RTI commission. “Not just the state but NGOs, businesses and citizens themselves must pull together to ensure its success.”
Furthering Transparency and Competitiveness
The private sector is also subject to and a beneficiary of the new right to information.
In Sri Lanka, the strong emphasis on proactive disclosure of information is good news for the island’s economy. “The data amounts to intangible assets that the government is producing daily. By releasing it in a manner that can be easily used and reused by the private sector, you can actually reap important economic benefits in terms of reducing transactions costs for companies, increasing competition and innovation,” says Fabian Seiderer, a Lead Public Sector Management Specialist at the World Bank.
As an example, he cites how companies and Sri Lanka companies would benefit from having the same easy access to consolidated database of national laws and regulations. Fiscal data, be it tax measures, budget allocations, and tenders could also be put to use by businesses. The same is true for transport data or anonymized household surveys. Granting the same access to all companies improves the level playing field and fosters competition.
In the European Union, for example, the Public Sector Information Directive (PSI) has been used to support companies by encouraging the re-use of information that public bodies in the EU produce, collect or pay for. Under the Directive, weather and mapping data was re-purposed commercially by third-party entrepreneurs for use in the GPS.
Public sector bodies which have drastically cut their charges for re-use have seen a dramatic increase in users. For instance, in the case of the Danish Enterprise and Construction Authority (DECA) the number of re-users went up by 10,000% leading to a re-use market growth of 1,000% over eight years. The additional tax revenue for the government is estimated to be four times the reduction in income from fees.
Finally, both information infrastructure and processes will have to evolve to face the challenges that lie ahead. Nurturing citizen engagement policies and encouraging petitions and public consultations will help strengthen the process and close the feedback loop. Going beyond, the RTI itself will need to be complemented by grievance redressal mechanisms that empower citizens to take action based on the information they receive.