FOI is not needed if leaders are honest and earnest
I’ve come to the conclusion that the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) is unnecessary. The information we want exists now, but we don’t know how to get to it. The demand for FOI, more than anything, is a reflection of the general lack of trust we hold for leaders. We can correct that if we ourselves assume accountability for electing an honest and earnest government, and if we organize the way information is requested.
It took me some time to sift through the matter. Only a few months ago, I was one of the voices criticizing the Aquino Administration for not getting FOI passed. Now I think we should not burden the Philippines with another law that will sit on the shelf confusing people and serving as fodder for various legal challenges that plug up the courts and agencies.
Instead, I’d suggest:
Just solve the problem.
And accept that we are a part of the problem. We need to accept accountability for GETTING the information we need. Rather than demand that it be delivered to us on a silver platter. Wrapped in ribbons and bows with a dainty chocolate bar on the pillow.
If I read his public comments correctly, President Aquino has three basic issues with regard to FOI. These are presented in my words, not those of the President:
- FOI may force him to divulge secrets that are, in his view, best kept secret to properly defend the nation.
- Government is fully capable of providing information without a law mandating it, which is what his “Transparency” program is all about.
- Government agencies will not be able to do productive work if staff are busy trying to satisfy a flood of poorly defined requests for information.
I think these are legitimate concerns.
I’m not sure that those requesting information have a legitimate case that they deserve to have government working full time on the off chance that someone may come up with a wayward question they want answered.
I mean, do we really have journalistic players here who are interested in the facts? Who are digging and probing for information and insight? If so, why are we getting so little of that? Why don’t we know of the status of infrastructure projects? Why don’t we have a sense of Manila on the move, building to meet the demands of an economy exploding with growth? Why do we . . . through our journalists . . . only see lines and congestion and complaint?
Why don’t we have any idea of the numbers of constructive, innovative projects underway at DOST, or how NEDA is working hard to extend the development horizon of the Philippines forward with long range plans? Or how financially strong the various cities are? Or how much in fees the LTO generates each year, in relation to expenses? Why does it seem like an information desert, and the only thing happening is personal conflict?
When the data are there. Now.
But no one’s looking for it. No one is thinking of solving problems, of presenting a detailed, thoughtful picture.
Mass media editors and producers don’t want their people out scrounging up data on this or that because they don’t want to pay them to do the legwork, to put in the three days it takes to do a well-researched article. No. They want one article a day, and make it sizzle.
Media . . . the people generally demanding FOI . . . want OUR GOVERNMENT to do the scrounging around, every day, and have the information ready on that silver platter, with bows and chocolates, so the reporters can get it if they want it. On demand.
FOI to me has come to represent the hollow populist demand of a set of petulant people who don’t know what information they want and don’t know what is available and don’t want to invest much to hunt it down. But they want to have whatever they may want produced on-the-spot when they demand it. No matter what it is.
Children, children. We are all children.
I rather think most Filipino journalists are needy, spoiled children of no inquisitive mindset or inclination to investigate anything. They just want quick and dirty quotes and enough information to splatter across the article like pepper on the omelette. Not all. But most.
Have you prowled the halls of government agencies lately looking for good data? Have you looked to see what is there? Transparency is one of the hidden achievements of the Aquino Administration. In 2010, if you dug around, you were likely to get diddly squat. Nothing. Oh, there were amateurish puff pieces on the agency heads and glowing language of mission statements. But you got diddly squat when looking for data. Now there are gold nuggets out there, or even rich veins of gold, at BSP and DBM, in particular. I was disappointed in what I found at Finance and NEDA seems to have pulled some information OUT of the web site. But, wow, there’s a whole world of data out there.
I came to this realization when I decided to do an article on fees, or the amounts agencies charge for their services. I figured LTO scrapes up a lot of “non-tax” revenue and wanted to know how much. What about other agencies?
Well, friends, here are the departments generating the most non-tax revenue based on DMB’s projection for 2016:
- Finance: 73.1 billion
- Energy: 36.9 billion
- Justice: 9.4 billion
- Foreign affairs: 7.0 billion
- Labor and Employment: 2.8 billion
- Environment and Natural Resources: 2.1 billion
- Transportation and Communication: 2.0 billion
- Interior and Local Governments: 1.2 billion
Total non-tax revenue is expected to be 146 billion pesos this year.
And here are the detailed tables showing expected trends and fees by source and department:
And here is a compilation of knowledge about the financial performance of the nation that will make you an expert, compared to most journalists or people demanding FOI:
Do you want to know the FACTS rather than popular speculation about the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)? Here you go:
In addition, we have economic and financial data, demographic, social, economic and other information is being collected by the Philippine Statistics Authority. Literacy. Unemployment. Population. Agricultural performance. A WEALTH of information.
Do you want to know what Executive is doing? Do a search in “The Official Gazette”. Want to know how the Supreme Court justices argued on this case or that? It’s there, under the heading of “jurisprudence”. Senate bills? House membership? It’s there.
- Executive: Official Gazette
- Supreme Court: Jurisprudence
- Senate: Bills
- Agencies: DSWD, DOTC, DILG, DepEd . . . and any others you want, if you just google them.
What information is NOT there?
- Defense secrets.
- Preliminary discussions/studies that ought not be published until finalized.
- Agency operating plans are typically not there and that is a huge omission (transparency is required only for financial data); so there is more work to do. It would be nice to see candor as to what they see the main goals and barriers to success. (Be forthright with us, eh? Prove that you understand the challenges.)
- Answers to one-off, strange and unusual requests are not there.
Are leaders responsive to the press? Of course, to a point. They are busy people, but they know that their job requires providing information to citizens directly or via the media. Most have press people or assistants to prioritize the questions and provide the answers.
Why do we need a law to mandate that they provide what they are fully willing to provide, within reason?
Now, if a newspaper editor thinks “reason” means meeting his deadline for publication tomorrow morning, we have to consider . . . as shareholders in government operations and productivity . . . whether or not we want our employees jerked around so some tabloidian writer can pretend he did his homework.
I personally do not. I believe government officials are more than willing to provide information. But they shouldn’t have to write the journalist’s story for him, or do the data dredging that the journalist should have done before posing an inane question.
Here’s my two-pronged suggestion in place of FOI:
- Journalists should form a media clearing house staffed with their own paid experts who know government data and resources inside out. Their job is to gather information or line up contacts in government for one-off information requests. Develop rules for sharing information: the requesting journalist has a 3, 6, 12, or 24 hour window for “first right of use” for output from the clearing house, the length determined by criteria the journalists mutually establish. Thereafter, the information is open to all media outlets. In other words, let the data USERS assume accountability for improving the quality of information they receive rather than requiring the government to set up a huge data processing industry that tries to anticipate all needs media outlets may have. And so they do not have to respond to a swarm of similar or duplicate requests coming from multiple sources.
- Second, government should fund a “Citizen’s Information Ombudsman”, a small agency dedicated to responding to citizen requests for information by routing them to the proper agency, and responsible for guiding agencies on how to make their web sites more meaningful.
Rather than getting all emotionally involved over FOI, pointing fingers and demanding satisfaction, we, ourselves can assure good information by:
- Electing honest, earnest leaders
- Requesting information in a way that does not expect government officials to do our journalistic work, and does not burden government workers with a flood of duplicate or “fishing” information requests.
We should expect government officials to be accountable for providing information. And an earnest government will do that.
And we should expect more of ourselves in how we search for it.