The Presidential Communications Operations Office held a Freedom of Information summit last week in Makati City. By virtue of Executive Order No. 2 issued by President Rodrigo Duterte just a few days after assuming office in 2016, it is the PCOO that is tasked to coordinate among all government agencies to ensure that the administration’s FOI program—even as it only applies to the Executive Department—is properly implemented.
During the summit, Assistant Secretary and FOI Program Director Kristian Ablan provided updates on the progress of the government’s FOI initiative. Among the successes are the increase in the number of local government units with FOI ordinances (21 in 2019 from just three in 2017), the number of agencies with FOI manuals (69 this year from 32 in 2017), and a success rate of 47 percent in 2019 from 41 percent two years ago. The present success rate means that, for every 10 requests made by the public, government agencies are able to respond nearly half the time. This is still quite far from the 80-percent ideal rate, however.
Ablan said that they are working on both the request side—educating the public that they could seek information from the government—and on the response side, by helping government agencies provide the needed information.
He added that aside from the benefits to good governance, the data requested by the public—mostly from the statistics agency, health, education, transportation, labor and public works departments, as well as from the weather bureau—are also used for personal, educational and business purposes. Indeed, this is empowering the citizenry through the availability of information.
Then again, amid these gains, a freedom of information law remains absent in the Philippine setting. According to the chairman of the House committee on public information, Kabayan Rep. Ron Salo, there are currently 16 pending FOI bills for their review.
He acknowledges several challenges to building an FOI environment across all branches of government—the sorry state of record-keeping among agencies, and the inherent unpreparedness of government employees to share information with the public, citing several privacy concerns. But while these challenges appear formidable, the availability of technology should make change easier.
The executive order on FOI issued by the President is good, but it remains just that—an order that was made under the prerogative of one man , the sitting chief executive. A law, on the other hand, would institutionalize such an environment and would clearly, unequivocally show the state’s commitment to openness, transparency and accountability.
For Diana Torres of the United Nations Development Programme, an FOI law is the centerpiece in ensuring state compliance. An EO is not enough, she said, because if a law is not present, everything would be at the discretion of whoever is in power.
Then again, for those countries that do have an FOI law already, implementation is a challenge. What more for those like the Philippines that don’t?
There was a time when there was public clamor for the passage of a law. No self-respecting lawmaker, after all, would go out and declare that he or she is against the right to information. We wonder, thus, what would provide the impetus for this piece of legislation, and why Congress does not seem to act with urgency on this basic requisite for governance.