Right to Information (RTI) legislation at the federal as well as provincial level is a step in the right direction for growing transparency, creating a responsible government and increasing citizen level engagement. However, certain roadblocks can seriously limit its potential as transformative legislation.
The resistance to disclose information is so entrenched in the culture of government organizations that it can in itself act as a deterrent to RTI requests. On the flip side, ordinary citizens are likely to view RTI with a high degree of skepticism and this can lead to the failure of the RTI legislation.
There is a need to take proactive actions to ensure that civilian interaction with RTI channels is pleasant. The system to receive, track and complete civilian RTI requests is the starting point of this interaction, and it needs to be highly user friendly, efficient and readily available. The RTI channels should be technology-based since this is the most effective option for any program to scale up to a national level and cut across different demographic segments. Furthermore, the high mobile phone density in the country coupled with the easy access to broadband makes investment in information technology (IT) based solutions a natural choice. The recommended use of technology in this context is not about deploying computers and connecting government offices. It is more about the ease with which RTI requests can be captured and tracked and about how the Information Officer’s responsiveness can be monitored.
Free and open source software (FOSS) now provide many pre-built software solutions that can be customized fairly easily to meet the needs of the RTI request tracking system. Enterprise Help ticketing systems are one such example of a possible software solution that can be considered. Some customization will be required to add support for local languages but there is definitely no need to reinvent the wheel. Technology solutions will not only facilitate RTI requests but will also enable Information Officers to fulfill requests within the stipulated timeframe.
Another important aspect of implementing RTI legislation is to ensure that public records are accurately maintained at all levels across different government and semi government institutions. Unless these records are maintained meticulously in a way that allows timely and easy retrieval, it will not be possible for even well-meaning government functionaries and designated information officers to fulfill information requests of common citizens.
Presently, government records in the secretariat are not being properly maintained. The outdated paper based filing system is becoming inefficient due to an increase in the volume of paperwork. In addition, Government offices are running out of physical space for storing official files. Additionally, we cannot deny that there are certain cases in which some files disappear/re-appear or are destroyed in accidents like fire owing to external influences or incentives. Granted that IT is not the silver bullet that will solve all problems, it is a viable solution, worth consideration. Owing to the consistent decrease in the cost of technical solutions and the many ways in which the knowledge economy is forging new relationships between the general public and the government, it makes sense for Government offices to go digital.
There are two aspects to going digital in the context of maintaining public records. Firstly, an ambitious undertaking can be to aggressively pursue the path of e-governance which basically means that all of the information created, modified, exchanged and stored in government organizations should be digital in nature. Any paper version of a file should be a mere copy of the digital master record. This is an ideal solution which will not only address the issue of maintaining official records but it can also fundamentally transform the nature of government secretariats.
Secondly, the ease and speed with which digital information flows will cut through the proverbial red tape, improve government efficiency and enable government bodies to process greater volume of work in less time. Moreover, new more collaborative ways of policymaking will emerge which will be more fact based and result oriented. Execution focus will also improve and the whole system will become more transparent.
This is an ideal scenario but owing to the fundamental ways in which the Government’s work will need to be transformed in order to make this system functional, it is admittedly almost beyond our immediate reach. Process re-engineering of this scale is unprecedented even in large enterprises. A realistic option is to employ an incremental process to work towards this ideal scenario.
Below, I am sharing few ideas on how to handle this transformation piecemeal and will highlight the significance of these different building blocks:
We have already talked about the need of the RTI request management system, which is a natural starting point on this journey. Making this system available over mobile phone platforms can be the next step. Although smart phones and other mobile devices are only used by a comparatively smaller section of our population, what makes it promising is the direction in which technology is developing. Another, somewhat overlooked aspect of mobile technologies is their robustness and ease of use. Generally no special skills or training is required to use mobile devices. Furthermore, as compared to computers, mobiles usage is common even in the segments of society which are not technology savvy.
Replacing complete paper based files with digital versions may be too ambitious but replacing the file ‘receipt’ and ‘dispatch’ registers with online system is fairly easy. The currently used paper based register system, if followed properly, provides a complete trail of the movement of a file from one desk to another within and across government departments. The limitations of this system come from the fact that manual systems do not lend themselves well to ad-hoc searches. Searching through these registers to follow a trail is prohibitively time consuming and error prone. A digital system can make this effortless and records can be more easily traced.
Even before the whole process is completely automated, just digitally storing official records at the archival stage can improve things significantly. Archives department is usually responsible for safekeeping of official records at the completion of a file’s life cycle. It is easier to scan and store a file digitally at this stage because it does not interfere with day-to-day workings of different offices. This system is valuable because retrieval is a lot simpler and efficient. Sophisticated document storage solutions offers implementation of governance rules like how long a specific type of records needs to be maintained and who has the authorization to access, update or purge the record. Most solutions comply with stringent audit trails to ensure all activities are tracked and recorded.
In doing all of this, our focus needs to be on local capacity development instead of purchasing software solutions from large global firms. We should invest in building software solutions on free and open source platforms that in many cases are getting ahead of the commercial offerings in ingenuity, performance and support. Almost all extra-large scale and highly responsive web based systems like Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter and Amazon use free and open source technologies.
Similarly, investment in cloud hosting infrastructure will not only lay the foundation for implementation of a large scale e-Government solution, it can also add to the local economy by enabling business to leverage such a platform.
This capacity development can be achieved either by engaging our local IT industry or by setting up a state enterprise. China, Singapore and locally National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) are great examples of successful execution of the state enterprise model, which lends credibility to the hypothesis that such a system can actually be built and successfully maintained in Pakistan.
[Mohsin Aziz is Vice President Professional Services at Xavor Corporation-a global technology and management consultancy firm and member Board of Directors, Centre for Civic Education Pakistan]