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Commentary

FOI only as good as how we use it

12:08 AM July 27, 2016

Less than a month in office, President Duterte has made good on his promise of issuing an executive order on freedom of information (FOI).

First off, there is no doubt that the FOI order is burdened with limitations. It only covers the departments and agencies under the executive branch and, as such, leaves the two other branches and the constitutional commissions untouched. Second, the President has directed the Department of Justice and the Office of the Solicitor General to “prepare a list of exceptions” within 30 days from the date of the effectivity of the EO.

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But before we fall into the spiraling debate on the scope and limitations of the new EO, we should first appraise its value: The FOI order is only as good as how we, the people, use it.

Freedom of information concerns not just transparency and accountability in governance but also empowering the people to see, understand, and scrutinize the processes of the government. It’s an important tool inasmuch as it enables ordinary citizens to tap into the vast resources of the government to enhance their participation in running the country. In other words, freedom of information should—in an ideal situation—strengthen democracy.

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However, much needs to be done to empower the people through information. Take the case of the government’s “Transparency Seal” initiative. First introduced in the 2012 General Appropriations Act, this initiative seeks to “enhance transparency and enforce accountability” in all national government agencies through the posting of relevant information and data including contact information, annual reports, approved budget, major programs and projects, the status of implementation, the works.

Despite the posting of such detailed information, there was no apparent rush in pursuing accountability and exposing wrongdoing in the government. The initiative provided more data on each and every agency’s nature of work and output, but its ineffectiveness all boils down to this simple fact: The people cannot easily navigate or make sense of the vast ocean of data that were readily at their

disposal.

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The Transparency Seal initiative’s failure to generate greater public interest in government functions and activities shows and proves that data and information alone cannot stand. If we want open access to information to gain relevance, big data must be interpreted and must be made to serve the interests of the general public.

In my work as a political adviser to legislators and as an independent journalist for years, I have seen for myself how my fellow journalists could not maximize the ready and available data to write and produce more hard-hitting reports. There are occasional exposés, yet the shock value of these recent exposés shows us how little we make use—and make sense—of the data at our disposal. The Disbursement Acceleration Program, for example, has been very well-documented, with papers about it already available online years before it exploded in the mass consciousness. The lesson is this: We may have the data, and figures might not lie, yet we need to know how to let these figures show us what’s not being revealed.

The new FOI order has the potential to pave the way for citizen-led review and investigation of the performance of agencies and departments under the President. Students of state universities can now demand from their school administrations reports on how tuition and other fees have been utilized. Government unions can now demand from agencies reports on salaries, the use of savings, and other information relevant to their

condition.

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The possibilities grow by the day: Just think of the many overpriced contracts, irregular fund releases, and incriminating correspondence that can now be accessed by the people. Ordinary citizens can now ask for information they need for their demands and campaigns.

But first, we must learn when and where to look for the relevant information and parse that information to get to the truth that hides behind lines of data. We need more data crunchers. We need more investigative reporters. And we need a more active and vigilant public. Otherwise, the FOI order will be just another paper tiger that would only enable us to gather tons of suffocating but ultimately worthless paperwork.

The first step toward genuine and comprehensive freedom of information is at our doorstep. It is incumbent upon us all to exhaust its potential to the fullest.

Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan party-list.

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TAGS: Freedom of Information, Rodrigo Duterte
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