10 February 2015

Legislating Trust in Government

Dinagat Islands Rep. Kaka Bag-ao delivered this speech in Yapak ni Jesse, a forum on good governance inspired by the brand of leadership of the late DILG Secretary and former Naga Mayor Jesse Robredo, last 10 February 2015.

Why FOI Matters: Freedom of information, in the form of legislation, provides public access to data held by the government. Such a law establishes and enables a concrete process to ensure that documents containing information that is relevant to the public can be easily obtained, given certain exceptions defined by law. 

Why FOI Matters: Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the “freedom to receive and impart information.” In most parts of the world, access to information is considered to be a prerequisite for transparency and accountability in government. At least 95 countries have enacted various forms of Freedom of Information laws.

Why FOI Matters: The 1987 Constitution provides for the State to adopt and implement “a policy of full public disclosure of all its transactions involving public interest.” Moreover, the Bill of Rights states that: “Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.”

Why FOI Matters: In relation to this, the Supreme Court said that “citizens can participate in public discussions leading to the formulation of government policies and their effective implementation” if they are “armed with the right information.”

Why FOI Matters: The Constitution states that the right to information “shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.” Therefore, Freedom of Information is not absolute. In this context, the Supreme Court, amid providing several exceptions in its decisions, states that “there are no specific laws prescribing the exact limitations within which the right may be exercised or the correlative state duty may be obliged.” These provide sufficient basis to include valid exceptions to FOI.

Why FOI Matters: Furthermore, Freedom of Information, when passed into law, provides the Filipino people with a means to actualize and operationalize Article XI, Section 1 of the Constitution, which states that “[p]ublic office is a public trust” and that “[p]ublic officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency...”

Why FOI Matters: In the context of governance, it is essential for public officials and offices to gain and sustain trust from citizens. A government that enjoys high trust from the people is able to carry out its programs more effectively in order to hasten the process of reform.

Why FOI Matters: The recent findings of the 2014 Philippine Trust Index, showed that government enjoyed only 11% trust from the general public, a 3% drop from 2012. According to the survey, this may be caused by “the government's perceived inability to deliver what the people expected of them.” This provides us with more reasons to continue strengthening reform policies, along with crafting new ones in order to increase citizens’ trust in government.

What is the People’s FOI Act? It is a better version that what is filed in the Senate. The current proposal follows the structure of its predecessors and international counterparts, such as general right of access to information, exceptions to access, procedure (which includes the creation of an FOI manual, costs, refusal, and appeals), and administrative and criminal penalties. 

What is FOI?:  The bill provides a clear and wide scope, covering the executive, legislative and judicial branches as well as constitutional bodies, government-owned or -controlled corporations, state universities and colleges, military and law enforcement organizations, and public financial institutions.

What is FOI?: The proposed People’s FOI Act clearly defines exceptions to the right to information, which covers the following: national security and defense, foreign affairs, communications invoked by the Executive as privileged, internal and external defense, law enforcement, border control, drafts of orders or resolutions, congressional executive sessions, unwarranted invasion of privacy, trade secrets, privileged communications in legal proceedings, other information exempted by law or the Constitution, and prematurely disclosed information that causes public harm.

What is FOI?: The proposed measure enumerates a uniform and efficient process for government offices in providing access to information, which includes the drafting of a Freedom of Information Manual. It also prescribes remedies when the information requested is denied, as well as administrative and criminal liabilities.

What is FOI?: The bill also mandates the online publication of documents on transactions of government offices and statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth of the President, the Vice President, the members of the Cabinet, the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Justices of the Supreme Court, the Commissioners of the Constitutional Commissions and other constitutional offices, and the officers of the Armed Forces with the rank of general or the equivalent flag rank.

What is FOI?: Other reform provisions include the capacity-building and promotion of best practices of government agencies, institutionalization of record-keeping in public offices, tracking/documentation of information requests, publication of government information in the Open Data website, integration of FOI in the basic education curriculum, among others.

Why FOI Matters: Currently, the Philippines is a participating country in the Open Government Partnership, a global initiative that seeks to make governments “more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens” through public and civil society collaboration.  The Philippines is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Part of the country’s commitments in both the OGP and UNCAC is the passage of the FOI bill into law. 

Why FOI Matters:  It is important to note that the FOI Law is a measure that will benefit all Filipinos, not just any single sector of society. While the government is currently spearheading programs that ensure openness to the people, it is necessary for us to cement these reforms through a law that will institutionalize mechanisms for transparency and accountability. FOI will eventually give rise to a culture of citizen involvement that will be essential in our battle against corruption.

Ultimately, with the approval of this important piece of legislation, which is considered as a priority measure of Congress, the trust of the public in government will be assured and strengthened by the constructive partnership with citizens through their informed participation in policy formulation and implementation. FOI matters, because for us Filipinos, FOI, which reflects the values held by Sec. Jess, will be the light that will illuminate the straight and narrow path towards progress and good governance for the country.

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