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Monday, August 27, 2012

Cook Islands a dubitable leader on FOI in the Pacific

With the dateline "Raratonga Cook Islands" to get something of a run this week as Prime Minister Gillard joins the 15 other leaders at the Pacific Islands Forum there, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leading a high powered US delegation and another from China both set for a post forum dialogue, among the many things you may not know:
the Cook Islands (population around 11,700, a bit over half that of the year 2000), a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand, is the only forum country other than New Zealand and Australia with a right to information law. 

The Official Information Act 2008 was largely a direct transplant of the NZ act, plonked into place without much preparation or attention to issues such as the state of record keeping, training, systems, processes and support within the public service, or on the demand side, public awareness. Not surprisingly it hasn't proved a raging success-see one recent assessment below.

Tonga (population around 100,000) the only other country in the region to take a step forward, commenced a process in October 2011 with Australia's Rick Snell (at left) providing advice and assistance, culminating in a government wide administrative policy on access to information announced at the end of June, and seen as a step towards legislated rights. Plenty of consultation and preparation inside and outside government and a Government Open Day to kick things off. The need to address the issue emerged in the context of broader government reform that included the first democratic election in Tonga in 2010. How things work in practice remains to be seen but the measured, step by step winning support approach with more attention to relevance and adaptation to local conditions is a contrast with the Cooks.

"Good governance for development" and a commitment to increased transparency and accountability as an anti-corruption measure have been up in lights in the Pacific Plan adopted by the Forum in various forms since 2005. But it is one of many priorities, even when leaders genuinely mean it.

The Cooks experience warns against simply adopting the bells and whistles developed country approach in countries with limited resources, that are relatively new to democracy and have cultural legacies that don't always fit neatly with the concept that government information belongs to the people, and is simply there for the asking.

Australia and other large donors such as the UNDP have thrown plenty of money into the good governance basket. Another source of increasing assistance in the region, China has not, and steers clear of pushing or nudging on 'internal domestic' matters, simply providing concessional loans and building infrastructure like airports and conference centres that recipients value highly. Australia has signed an aid Transparency Charter. China's program isn't transparent at all.

The big three in the Pacific-Papua New Guinea (7 million), Fiji (around 900,000) and Solomon Islands (around 580,00) aren't near the lead in this area, or well placed to provide leadership to others.

PNG ranks 154 of 182 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Index. The PNG Constitution explicitly recognises the right of reasonable access to official documents, subject only to the need for such secrecy as is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. However no enabling law has been passed. One positive, the PNG National Anti-Corruption Strategy 2010 2030 - (pdf) includes a commitment signed two years ago by current Prime Minister O'Neil (now talking tough about targeting corruption) to enact comprehensive Freedom of Information legislation, take other measures to promote disclosure, and sign and implement the Extractive IndustriesTransparency Initiative.

(The EITI promotes full disclosure of resource company payments to governments and revenues received by those governments, and may provide other countries in the region an opportunity as well to improve transparency in this respect at least. Australia through AusAID has committed $17.45 million (2007 to 2015) to the World Bank administered Multi-Donor Trust Fund and the EITI Secretariat.) which promotes EITI adoption and provides advice to countries on how to implement EITI compliant reporting processes.)

Fiji continues under military rule at least until 2014 with plenty of constraints on the media and the citizenry, and the Solomons is still a long way short of running its own show having relied on RAMSI for nine years now. In another country in the news, Nauru (population just shy of 10,000) there was reference to a specific right to information during the 2006/7 review of the Constitution but nothing heard since. In 2004 a freedom of information act made it into parliament but did not pass.
-->As to the Cooks, this extract regarding the Official Information Act is from Fragile Freedom, the Inaugural Report on Press Freedom in the Pacific published  in May 2012 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific in partnership with the Pacific Freedom Forum:
Media criticism of the law has ranged from the state’s failure to invest sufficient resources in its ownership and awareness-building, to perceptions that it is an awkward tool that suffers from a convoluted mix of conditions, such as delays and exemptions. At one extreme, the law is considered basically useless to the broadcasting sector. The inevitable delay in government departments’ responses runs contrary to the immediacy of broadcasting, which demands rapid turnaround in gathering information. Moreover, the OIA is considered redundant and ineffectual in a competitive information environment where journalists have become used to leaks and developing relationship linkages. Neither of the major media outlets (Cook Islands News or Pitt Media Group) has recorded much success with the OIA. The daily newspaper has filed OIA requests on numerous occasions, but responses have been poor to date. The main broadcaster currently has no interest in the law, and no patience with what is perceived as lip service to improving the responsiveness of departments....

There is a consensus between media and the Ombudsman on the need for more public awareness for the OIA and how it can be used to access information. The Ombudsman sees value in conducting a survey of all departments to determine the number of requests they have received since coming under the OIA. The media agrees workshop training must continue, at least until it is clear whether there is any improvement. The Office of the Ombudsman has publicly acknowledged the persistence of a culture of secrecy within official circles. However, no attention is paid to investigating the deeper motives for persistent secrecy, and thus helping to lift the veil.

For example, many government agencies have inadequate record-keeping systems and controls, rendering certain information inaccessible even with the OIA. Old records and files are often boxed and dispatched to the National Archives for storage, thereby cutting links and making access even harder. The evolving digital environment has introduced new pressures, particularly in terms of training and protocols to manage the information effectively. An over-arching responsibility to institute records-management policies and mechanisms remains unattended to. Many public sector agents at senior levels lack communications training and therefore suffer from low levels of confidence in speaking publicly about their work. Some believe their work is too complicated for the “ordinary person” and do not devote either the resources or the time to reshaping the information for “grassroots” consumption. There is a public sector mindset of protecting one’s turf that stems partly from an ingrained attitude that knowledge equals power and influence. The reluctance to share is driven by fears of losing this power and influence (a particularly pronounced advantage in a small community), and concerns about a consequent erosion of state funding.

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