Poor IT capacity hampers information requests

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Peshawar: The much celebrated Right to Information Commission in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province remains hamstrung by delays in response to public requests because the officials tasked to address these lack IT skills, says the 2016 annual report of the commission.

As per the RTI Act, the officials are required to furnish the information sought within ten days of the request, says the RTI website (kprti.gov.kp). This can be extended by another ten days maximum in case the information request requires searching through a large size of records located in different offices, or consultation with third parties or other public bodies. “Information needed to protect the life or liberty of any individual will be provided within two working days,” says the RTI website.

The RTIC’s annual report speaks of delays on part of the information officials in addressing the information requests and public complaints – in case citizens are not happy with the way their RTI requests have been handled, the Public Information Officer (PIO) did not respond or did not provide the information sought. The RTIC is mandated to look into these complaints and follow up on them. According to the PTIC report, one of the reasons for delays is that the PIOs lack IT skills to process information requests filed through the commission’s website.

“The need for an IT literate PIO is the need of the time as the commission’s day to day business is going digital,” said the report, “while on the other hand PIO, who plays a key role in the whole process, is handicapped [by lack of IT skills], retarding the whole process.”

The RTIC report says 600 PIOs nominated by the public departments are responsible to address he information requests and complaints from citizens. However, in the majority of cases, the PIOs are neither computer literate nor have access to the online RTI website due to non-availability of computers or internet connectivity , causing delays in processing of requests at the primary level.

Moreover, the commission, according to the report, has observed that majority of complaints received from the citizens about their information requests are not addressed in time due to delay in response on part of the PIOs.

According to an RTI official, who wishes anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to media, three years have passed since the RTI Act was promulgated but administrative actions for implementation the law have not been taken. As a result, it is being executed in an ad hoc way.

“For the law to be effective, RTI has to be included in the official rules of business of public departments,” said the official. “ [Only then can we] ensure action against those who do not provide information to citizens.”

The official said that absence of RTI from rules of business results in lack of interest on part of the officialdom to entertain requests for information from citizens .He said only six officials had been fined in the last three years for not providing information. But the fine money hadn’t been recovered from them because of absence of RTI from the official rules of business making it binding for PIOs to respond to requests.

Complainants seem to agree with this trend. Kamal Ahmad, head of the Private Schools Association in Peshawar, showed News Lens 30 requests he had filed at different times. One of them related to information about real estate that the Peshawar Development Authority had sold to Iqra, a college, in the residential area of Hayatabad town in Peshawar. Another was about the Edwardes College in Peshawar acquiring land in the cantonment, apparently in violation of rules. However the information he received, said Ahmad, wasn’t what he had asked for.

Muhammad Alam, based in Peshawar, filed 12 requests through the RTI website as a citizen, seeking information from departments including the Peshawar Development Authority, the finance department, the local government department and the local council board. Among his requests was one about information related to the number of people who had received food aid under the PTI government’s Insaaf Food Programme, started to provide food to the poor in the province.  Another sought information about the rules under which the Local Government Department had hired 700 employees since the PTI government came to power. It has been two months since Alam filed the requests and he has yet to receive the information sought.

When asked why he hadn’t complained against the departments to the RTIC Commission, he said appearing before the commission regularly was time consuming for him. “The RTIC should deal with the departments not providing information without dragging the requesters into the matter.”

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa RTI Act was passed by the KP assembly in November, 2013. It was widely assessed by national and international experts and dubbed as an outstanding piece of legislation by various organizations including Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) Pakistan.

Under the act, every citizen of the country except those from the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), could seek any information about any public department of the province.

The RTIC report says the commission received a total of 1771 public requests for information from April 2015 to June 2016, of which 1409 have been disposed of. The highest number of these complaints (662) related to the Elementary and Secondary Education Department for not providing informaton, of which 373 were resolved. Another 342 information requests were received by the Higher Education, Archives and Libraries department, of which only 65 requests were addressed. Out of 220 requests received by the Local Government Department, only 42 requesters were provided information. Another 65 requests were resolved out of the 308 received by the Home and Tribal Affairs department.

Of the 1771 requests, only 215 were filed by women, according to the RTIC report.

“The PIOs usually do not respond to requests immediately as they are assigned this [taking up requests] as an additional charge without remuneration,” said the RTIC report. It suggested that the administrative head of a public department be designated as PIO to ensure smooth supply of information under RTI. It said the law hadn’t been extended to PATA region including the Malakand division and a large number of requests about PATA were ignored.

When asked about delays in response to information requests, RTI Chief Commissioner Azmat Hanif Orakzai said he had only recently taken charge of the office and was looking into improving the response process.

About the lack of rules of business, Orakzai said that a proposal seeking amendments in the RTI act had been sent to the Law Department and RTIC was pursuing the matter aggressively.

“We are striving to strengthen the commission through reforms, amendments and formulation of rules of business,” he said.

He said the RTI Commission planned to deploy interns in all divisional headquarters of the province to facilitate requesters and prepare monthly reports for the RTI headquarter in Peshawar.

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