THE ISSUANCE on July 23, 2016 of Executive Order No. 2 on Freedom of Information drew support from the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition as a signal of the commitment of the Duterte Administration to respect and promote the people's right to access information in the Executive Branch.
The Coalition was hopeful that EO No. 2 ("Operationalizing In The Executive Branch The People’s Constitutional Right To Information And The State Policies To Full Public Disclosure And Transparency In The Public Service And Providing Guidelines Therefor") will send a strong message for the Senate and the House of Representatives to finally ensure the swift passage of the FOI Law that could cover all the branches and agencies of the government.
Close to the deadline for all Executive offices to roll out their "People's FOI Manuals", in November 2016 the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) launched yet another ambitious undertaking -- an eFOI Portal that would host access-to-information requests from citizens, and the corresponding action taken by state agencies on the same.
EO No. 2, the People's FOI Manuals, and the eFOI Portal are transparency tools that the Duterte Administration have offered citizens to ease the process of accessing information vested with public interest.
But nine months after EO No. 2's momentous birth, and four months after its full rollout, the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition's informed judgment is that the Duterte Adminisration's work on the FOI front is far from done.
In truth, based on six parallel "FOI Practice" projects undertaken by our CSO members, an omnibus request for and analysis of the FOI Manuals of 22 Executive departments and offices, and a study of the curated requests posted on the eFOI Portal, the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition finds that a mix of forward, backward, and side steps have defined the compliance by Executive offices with EO No. 2.
Given these findings, the Right to Know. Right Now!. R Coalition affirms that there is greater urgency for Congress to enact, without any further delay, the passage of the FOI Law.
The core value of any FOI initiative is how much it could effectively and efficiently assist and affirm the citizen’s right to access information, but also how far it could oblige and require state agencies and officials to disclose information. In both cases, or for both citizens and public officials, the process should be quick and easy, and the desired result, sunshine or full transparency.
Indeed, access and disclosure are two equal parts of the FOI equation. It is thus premature to claim victory for FOI, on acocunt of EO No. 2 alone, because the one, true treshhold that the state must hurdle is how far and how much it has nurtured a culture of openness and transparency in all its parts.
The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition has taken steps to actually test compliance with EO No. 2 against this threshold, through multiple, parallel initiatives by our members.
Six “FOI Practice” projects of our CSO members during the first three months from its full rollout in November 2016 have yielded mixed results of slow to quick action by various agencies on requests for information.
The Coalition filed an omnibus request for copies of the People's FOI Manuals of 22 Executive departments and offices but less than half responded positively, and the others said they did not have Manuals as yet. The "exceptions" enrolled in some of these Manuals have raised concern among us that some agencies would want to remain opaque than open.
Our analysis of data in the eFOI Portal that for now hosts 64 agencies, out of 503 requests posted online as of March 14, 2017, up to 183 requests had been denied, 166 granted, and 154 more "pending or for processing".
On one hand, some offices failed to comply with the clear directive and deadline to provide an FOI Manual and identify the responsible officers in the FOI chain. Some others did not even acknowledge requests sent via email or fax, nor even answer phone calls. Too, there were agency FOI Manuals that enrolled additional grounds for denial that have no basis in the Constitution, the statutes or jurisprudence. It took some agencies weeks and months on end to respond to requests, or well beyond the 15 working days deadline that the laws and EO No. 2 had imposed.
On the other hand, there were also offices that took to heart compliance with the letter and spirit of EO No. 2. While they constitute only a minority of the agencies that had been approached by members of the Coalition, these offices deserve our highest commendation. They promptly and professionally acknowledged letter requests, answered queries, and responded to requests sans the need for multiple follow-ups.
One take-away from our FOI Practice projects stands out: If public officials and agencies mean to do it, appreciate and understand just how important it is to them as much as to citizens, FOI is a good, easy goal to achieve.
In gist, the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition deems it too early for the Duterte Administration to claim its FOI project as a feather in its cap. It would be more propitious to say though that it has taken the first, major steps to lay the foundation for a regime of transparency through EO No. 2, the People's FOI Manuals of executive offices, and its eFOI Portal.
Much work lies ahead for both the citizens and the government on the FOI front. A central common task that must be achieved promptly is the passage of the FOI Law. In this, the Senate and the House of Representatives must not falter and fail anymore than their predecessors in five prior Congresses did.
The Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition has waged a 15-year campaign to have the FOI Law passed and with his EO No. 2 as his signal move, President Rodrigo R. Duterte must now, in words as in deeds, push with vigor the passage of the FOI Law by his "super majority" in both legislative chambers.
As best we could and by the standards of transparency, accountability, and good governance, the Right to Know. Right Now! Coalition commits to assist the Executive branch improve its FOI mechanisms. This commitment rests, however, on our hope that the Duterte Administration will relentlessly pursue its FOI project across all Executive offices.
Just as important, the Right to Know. Right Now! Coaltion enjoins the citizens, CSOs, academe, the private sector, and all sectors to engage in FOI practice and join the campaign for the passage of an authentic FOI Law.
While full congratulations are not yet in order in the fight for FOI, we offer a partner’s pat on the back to public officials and civil servants in the Executive and Legislative branches who continue to labor tirelessly to ensure that we achieve big and small victories steadily and constantly in our shared journey to an authentic FOI regime.