TRUE TRANSPARENCY means that government should empower its citizens with the means to participate in the decision making processes.
This was the message delivered by Senator Grace Llamanzares-Poe, chairperson of the Senate committee on public information and mass media, during the launch of the Independent Reporting Mechanism‘s (IRM) Philippine report for the Open Government Partnership last week.
The IRM is a monitoring mechanism created by the OGP, an international partnership of governments pushing for more transparency and accountability in governments. The IRM report, authored by the IRM researcher in Manila, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas, showed that while the Philippine government has made significant gains in transparency efforts, it only partially fulfilled the commitments it made to the OGP in 2011.
Poe stressed that real transparency means that government should be empowering its citizens with the tools and information to make good judgments, in order to influence policy making on all levels.
Poe said this in fact is why the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill is such a crucial piece of legislation. In fact Poe said that part of the reason why the Philippine government did not score as highly as it would have wanted in the IRM report was probably because of its failure to prioritize the FOI bill.
“Government should not just be focused on service delivery,” Poe remarked after a briefing on the IRM report. “It should also involve citizens in policy decision making.”
“We should not just be recipients, but also participants,” she added. But before we can be participants, the information should also be accessible. This is where the FOI comes in.”
Poe’s committee on public information and mass media had reported the Senate version of the FOI on the Senate floor after only two committee hearings, a record for the Senate. The Senate leadership had also committed to pass its version of the FOI within the year.
In contrast, the House of Representatives’ committee on public information is still to begin hearings on the FOI bill. The bill has been languishing in Congress for a decade and a half already because of resistance from many legislators to the FOI.
President Benigno S. Aquino III himself had expressed support for the FOI when he was still campaigning for the Presidency in 2010. However, the President had refused to certify the bill as urgent, and legislators in the lower chamber cited this hesitation as one of the reasons why they have not given the measure any priority in the House of Representatives. The President is said to still have some reservations regarding some provisions of the FOI, even though a Palace study group had already endorsed the bill for his approval.
Poe noted that the IRM report showed only partial fulfillment of the Philippine government’s commitments possible “because of Congress’ failure to pass the FOI and the absence of the necessary certification from Malacanang that the legislation is an urgent measure.”
Poe said the new version submitted by her committee to the Senate plenary incorporates new features based on the proposals from civil society groups and transparency networks such as the Right to Know Right Now! coalition.
For example, Poe said the Senate bill encourages the use of the internet for a more comprehensive application of the FOI, “taking into account usability and volunteerism.” Any such information made available by the government in its various websites and portals should be in a format usable by the public, by researchers, CSOs, and anyone who has an interest in the data.
In addition, Poe said the bill provides for “integration of good governance and transparency and the exercise of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in the curricula in both elementary and high school.”
“We say that corruption is systemic, and moral regeneration is needed,” Poe said. “But the citizens have to know their rights, and we need to teach them at an early age so that it is embedded early that they should participate and have the right to know.”