Government Information Officers at Federal, State and Local Government levels have proposed a range of administrative and institutional reforms in the public service to ensure the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Bill, when it becomes law.
The information officers who participated in four training Workshops on Freedom of Information for Public Information Officers held in different parts of the country noted that the present information management habits and practices of government ministries, departments and agencies would hamper the effective implementation of the proposed law if no comprehensive reform is undertaken.
The first workshop, for information officers from Federal Government ministries, departments and agencies, was held in September 2006 at the Reiz Continental Hotel in Abuja. The other workshops were for: information officers from states and local governments in the northern part of the country (held at the ASAA Pyramid Hotel in Kaduna from January 15 to 18, 2007); information officers from states and local governments in the south east and south-south zones (held at All Seasons Hotel, Owerri, Imo State, from January 22 to 25, 2007); and information officers from states and local governments in the south west (held at Lafia Hotel, Ibadan, Oyo State, from January 29 to February 1, 2007).
The workshops were organized by Media Rights Agenda (MRA) with support from the Global Opportunities Fund managed by the UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London.
The workshops were organized in the context of the imminent adoption of the Freedom of Information Act in Nigeria. The Freedom of Information Bill, which has been pending before the National Assembly since 1999, was passed by the House of Representatives on August 25, 2004 and later by the Senate on November 15, 2006. The Bill seeks to give every Nigerian citizen a right of access to information held by public bodies and private bodies carrying out public functions.
The main objective of the workshops was to raise the profile of access to information in Nigeria and broaden the support base for the Bill by sensitizing public information officers about a regime of access to information. In particular, the workshops were intended to:
· Raise awareness among public information officers in Government ministries, departments, institutions and agencies about the existence of the Bill;
· Familiarize public information officers with the content of the Bill, its objectives, relevance and benefits to Nigeria’s economic, social and political interests;
· Discuss concrete ways in which public information officers can contribute to the effective implementation of the proposed law;
· Develop strategies for broadening the constituency of support for the Bill, including how to create greater awareness within Government ministries, departments, institutions and agencies about it; and
· Initiate a process which can trigger the development, within Government ministries, departments, institutions and agencies, of appropriate policies and procedures to facilitate the effective implementation of the freedom of information law.
The topics addressed at the workshops were: “What is Freedom of Information?” “Basic Principles of Freedom of Information Laws”, “Freedom of Information Around the World: A Global Movement for Access”, “The Freedom of Information Bill: Key Issues in the Bill”, “The Freedom of Information Bill: Historical Background”, “Challenges to Effective Implementation of a Freedom of Information Act”, “Potential Benefits of a Freedom of Information Law”, “Freedom of Information and the Media.”
There was also a brainstorming session on “The Role of Public Information Officers in the Implementation of a Freedom of Information Act”, while the participants also carried group exercises in break-out session on “Strategies for Improving Record Management in Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies”, “Developing Mechanisms for Processing Requests for Information from Members of the Public” and “Strategies for Creating Awareness about the Freedom of Information Bill or Act in Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies”.
The participants also viewed three video documentaries on how rural communities as well as individuals and professionals from various sectors are using the Right to Information Act in India to empower themselves.
Participants in all the workshops were unanimous that information in the form of records or documents, held by government does not belong to the government itself but rather, that it belongs to the people and is held in custody by the government for the people. As a result, they agreed, members of the public should have a right of access to such information, except where it is necessary to protect certain types of sensitive information in accordance with internationally recognized standards.
The information officers noted and recommended as follows:
- Every citizen has the right to request for information and be given access to records and documents under the control of government or public institution. However, in order to give effect to this, it is necessary that mechanisms be put in place for processing requests for information facilitating easy access to such information. Accordingly, and given the provisions of the proposed law, a standardized form should be designed by all government ministries, departments and agencies for members of the public seeking records and documents.
- The systematic exclusion of information officers from management meetings of their respective ministries, departments and agencies is inimical to their effectiveness in disseminating information to members of the public. They therefore suggested that information officers, regardless of their level in service, should be allowed to participate in the management meetings of their respective public institutions so that they can have fuller information and a better understanding of the decisions taken by their organizations in order to function more effectively in providing access to information for members of the public. In addition, the information officers should have access to copies of circulars and memos coming in or going out of the ministry, department or agency.
- Inadequate funding and resources can limit the effective implementation of the Freedom of Information law. Accordingly, adequate funds should be voted for information-related matters, especially the implementation of the Freedom of Information law.
- Governments at all levels should provide information officers with up-to-date facilities for the processing and release of information to the public. In particular, they recommended that computers should be procured and installed in the information units of all ministries, departments and agencies and that there should be a centralized database through which information officers can be updated about developments in the organizations.
- Government officials, particularly information officers, should be trained on the use of new information technologies, records keeping and data management to equip them with the skills required for the effective implementation of a freedom of information regime.
- The Official Secrets Act inhibits the right of access to information and should be reviewed. The Nigerian Law Reform Commission, which is charged with the responsibility for the review of all archaic laws in the country, should take action in this regard.
- A system of classification of records and documents held by Federal Government ministries, departments, institutions and agencies should be introduced so that information officers dealing with requests for information from members of the public will be better guided on what records or documents are classified and should not be released to the public.
- The Federal Public Service Rules should also be reviewed to remove its intimidating provisions which inhibit public officers and civil servants from giving out information to members of the public. The Bureau for Public Service Reforms should take action in this regard.
- Each state ministry, department or agency should have its own website, which should be regularly updated, to facilitate and ease information flow between them and the public.
- Many state ministries, departments and agencies lack archival units and facilities, which makes record storage and management difficult. Accordingly, each ministry, department or agency should have its own archival unit. Such archives should be properly maintained and should be manned by qualified professionals.
- SERVICOM should extend its service delivery philosophy and requirements to cover records management and the implementation of a Freedom of Information regime. Effective and efficient systems for the storage of records in Federal Government ministries, departments, institutions and agencies should be developed to eliminate the incessant disappearance or loss of official records and documents.
- All government ministries, departments and agencies should adopt various methods for creating awareness about the Freedom of Information law, especially among senior management staff. In particular, workshops and seminars on the Freedom of Information law should be organized for different categories of civil servants, with special emphasis on Information Officers and Legal Advisers. Copies of the Freedom of Information Bill/Act should also be circulated to all Federal ministries, parastatals and agencies.