‘The Rusties’ recognise information incompetence

For two years in a row, seven municipalities and four provincial premiers’ offices have failed utterly to respond to an NGO’s requests for information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

As a result, the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) decided to put the names of all 11 offenders into a hat. They drew the Free State Bophirima district municipality as the winner of the inaugural ”Rusty padlock award” — a dishonour that brands it as the ”most unresponsive, secretive, chronically non-compliant public institution”.

It’s a bit unfair to have the award bestowed on you alone, when after all you share the status with 10 others. ODAC’s press release, however, singles out the winner not just for shame, but for aspiration: ”We congratulate the Bophirima District Municipality, and hope not to see them again next year.”

Seeking to avoid being put into the 2009 hat, the municipal manager in one of Bophirima’s fellow defaulters contacted ODAC and volunteered his personal phone number and the advice that they should contact him directly next time if there’s no response.

”We had to explain that this was not really what we were looking for,” says ODAC CEO Alison Tilley. ”We are trying to monitor how well public bodies respond ordinarily to people who want information.”

The ODAC 2008 information request went out to a sample of 42 South African public bodies. Only four in ten responded. That includes just one third of the nine provincial premiers’ offices included in the exercise.

And 10 out of the total of 19 bodies that gave some response still nevertheless failed in terms of their scores in meeting ODAC’s particular requests. The big municipalities of Cape Town and Ethekwini metros passed, but only just.

Among the majority (60%) of the surveyed institutions that proved too dismal to even deal with the requests were other sizeable players like Tshwane municipality and the Western Cape premier’s office.

Such pitiful performance frustrates public participation and runs against the grain of democracy. However, it is probably less of a deliberate denial of access to information than simple incapacity. ”We have to make about six calls even to get a fax number and confirm that our request has arrived,” says Tilley.

”Sometimes a person receives the request and hands it on to another, who hands it to another, and then you know it’s lost,” observes Tilley.

The question arises as to whether the estimated 800 public institutions in South Africa at large are as unresponsive as the ODAC experience suggests.

To do their test, the organisation operates with pretty high standards. With a potential maximum score of 47 points, ODAC’s request covers four different data sets: an office’s guide to the public concerning info access; documented systems for how records are managed; procedures and competence information; and the human resources and financial budgets to support public requests.

That’s quite a lot to ask of the Bophirima municipality. The complexity may be why the top-scoring institution in 2008 is the less-daunted and better-resourced Johannesburg municipality, which earned 40 out of the 47 possible points.

On the other hand, while size may help, being small and/or rural doesn’t in principle preclude proper information services. For example, the Limpopo department of public works got 34 points from ODAC, and the tiny Theewaterskloof Municipality managed to notch up 30. They demonstrate a level of info-readiness that meets ODAC’s standards.

Legal obligation
What can be done to ensure that South Africa’s failing public agencies do indeed fulfil their constitutional and legal obligation to service information requests? ODAC points to the need for training officials, but also for an information commissioner with the power to compel compliance.

Says Tilley: ”Draft legislation by the South African Law Commission, and approved by the Ministry of Justice, proposes a committee to manage data protection that could have a dual role and serve as an information commissioner.” The law could be tabled next year.

Meanwhile, besides shaming South Africa’s ”rustbelt”, ODAC also operates a ”Golden Key” award to celebrate performance at the other extreme. This year, it gave a prize of R10 000 to a police senior superintendent for her successful work as a deputy information officer.

However, ODAC was unable to issue its award in the category of journalists who use the right to information law. No nominations were received — ”a sad story”, says Tilley.

”Most journalists have a very short-term view on stories and deadlines. The minute you mention that a request could take two weeks’ minimum and that there is a thirty-day appeal period, they lose interest.” As a result, few journalists use the legislation.

Without much action from the media, ODAC spearheads the drive for information openness and responsiveness in South Africa. The results of its 2008 test show there is a long way to go.

That’s not even considering the need for transparency in funding for political parties as the polling period starts to roll.

Making a reality of the right to information should be an election issue.

Certainly, no one should be promising a ”developmental state” when the present information regime is so dysfunctional and debilitating to democracy.

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