FOI Practice projects of 6 CSOs

Slow & quick action, open & opaque agencies

SUPER QUICK or interminably slow action, a few or all documents, and clear or vague policies and lines of authority — a mix of good and bad practices marked the conduct of state agencies and personnel that recently received access to information requests from six civil society organizations (CSOs) of the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition or R2RKN.

The FOI requests submitted between October 2016 and February 2017 formed part of the “FOI Practice” projects of the Coalition of 160 CSOs and CSO leaders that has led the 15-year advocacy for the enactment of an FOI law in the country.

The requests marked, too, the first three months before and after the full rollout of President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s Executive Order No. 2, “Operationalizing In The Executive Branch The People’s Constitutional Right To Information And The State Policies To Full Public Disclosure And Transparency In The Public Service And Providing Guidelines Therefor.”

Duterte signed EO No. 2 on July 23, 2016 but also gave executive agencies four months or until November 2016 to craft their respective “People’s FOI Manual.” During the period, the Office of the Executive Secretary also finalized the categories of information covered by “exceptions,” according to established laws and statutes.

The Coalition first launched its “FOI Practice” project in 2014 in its effort to promote evidence-based research on how open or opaque, how quick or slow, and the procedural or policy issues hinder the citizens’ exercise of their right to access information vested with public interest. The Coalition deems it important to shore up public demand and practice in accessing information, even ahead of the passage of an FOI law.

The FOI Practice project also seeks to support the need for unique information relevant to the respective advocacies and programs of the participating CSO teams, using the research tools and methods of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

For the second run of the R2RKN’s “FOI Practice” project, six CSOs participated, notably the Action for Economic Reforms (AER), Alternative Budget Initiative-Health (ABI-Health), Bantay Kita (BK), Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), Checkmyschool (CMS) of ANSA EAP, and Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC).

In separate but parallel FOI Practice projects, the CSOs sought documents from the Philippine Statistical Authority (PSA), Department of Health (DOH), Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT), Department of Education (DepED), Department of Agriculture (DA), and Bureau of Treasury (BTr).

In gist, the Coalition’s FOI Practice teams noted that mixed results or responses to the access to information requests from the CSOs:

On response time by the agencies:
• Very fast response (PSA, BTr 1st request, DA), or within 15 days (POEA, IACAT);
• Delays (POEA, BTr 2nd request, DepEd, DOH, BIR); and
• No response at all (BFAR)

On the quality of information provided by the agencies:
• Complete (PSA, DA, IACAT, BIR);
• Incomplete, missing data or information (BTr, POEA, DOH); and
• None at all (MGB, DepEd)

On reasons cited/observed for delayed action on the requests:
• Need for clearance from higher-ups before information can be released (DepEd);
• Request passed from one office to another (MGB, DOH, BIR);
• Unanswered phone/fax and emails (BFAR, IACAT); and
• Central office does not have complete data, no central repository of data that are supposed to be monitored (MGB).

On some very good outcomes of the FOI Practice projects:
• PSA gave data request (FIES and LFS survey data) without charge;
• PSA offered older series when series asked for was not yet available (April 2016 instead of October 2016 LFS);
• PSA entertained technical questions about data format, and even offered to give a briefing on a different schedule;
• DA hand-carried complete information to the office of requester; and
• BTr provided information, except for missing years (1986-1988, national government external debt service; pre-1986.

On what account for successful access-to-information requests:
• Clear, specific information/document requested;
• Knowledge of where to go or who to ask (agencies, officials); and
• Prior or existing engagement / relationship with target office

On what could be frustrating about access-to-information requests:

• Failure of government offices to acknowledge that they received the requests (which will trigger the 15-dqy count);
• Slow decision-making (if somebody else has to approve request);
• There has been no case of outright denial of request, but there’s non-response, release of incomplete information (missing data, no explanation);
• All the requestors are advocates and researchers and the delay or non-release of documents requested have adverse impact on their work and programs; and
• Much needs to be done to improve the request process and infrastructure to cater to those who might not have extensive understanding of the agencies or any contacts within the agencies.

The FOI Practice Teams filed these reports with the Right to Know Coalition:

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* The Action For Economic Reforms, which requested copies of the
Public-Utility Files (PUF) of the Family Income and Expenditure Survey or FIES 2015, and the Labor Force Survey or LFS as of October 2016, from the Philippine Statistical Authority (PSA).

AER filed the request via a single email addressed to the PSA head and by filling out a request form on the agency’s portal. The next day, without having to make any follow-up phone calls, or pay a single centavo of fees, AER received the files.

AER had asked for the basic, unprocessed survey data to be able to do its own analysis, beyond the tables that are officially generated by PSA. In a day, the request was granted. PSA and asked an AER staff went to retrieve the files from the PSA office in Quezon City.

However, because the LFS for October 2016 was not yet available, PSA gave AER the latest LFS for April 2016.

In a separate phone call, PSA also patiently explained to an AER staff the installation procedure so the codebooks can be accessed. The codebooks are important to understand the labels that PSA used in the files. PSA also offered to give a full in-person briefing to AER, which will be set at a later date.

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* The Alternative Budget Initiative-Health Cluster (ABI-Health), through the Action for Economic Reforms (AER) filed requests with the Department of Health and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) for information related to its research mainly on the Comprehensive Tax Reform Agenda.

ABI-Health sought from the DOH the following:

• Raw data of Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2015
• Raw data of Social Weather Stations (SWS) Survey on Smoking conducted in 2015.

From the BIR, ABI-Health asked for the following information:
• Volume of removals for tobacco and alcohol (by tobacco tiers and type of pack, and by type of alcohol) from 2009 to 2016, or whatever is latest
• Total and disaggregated excise tax collected from the same, from 2009 to 2016

A researcher, meanwhile, also requested a third set of information on mental health from DOH:

• Detailed plans on the construction or accessibility of mental health facilities
• Data on budget proposal and allocation in relation to mental health

Both GATS (2015) and SWS Smoking Survey 2015 could provide links between the increased cigarette taxes across brands and the various aspects of smoking behavior. These data can also complement the data from the National Nutrition Survey (NNS) 2015, which has initially showed decline in consumption of the poor and the youth. Although some reports on GATS are published online, specific variables can only be provided in raw set of data.

The data on volume of removals (volume of cigarettes withdrawn from warehouses and monitored facilities) and on total value of excise tax collections from this volume are useful in matching the prevalence of smokers, with national trend in consumption and revenues. Both data from the DOH and the BIR are crucial to the completion of estimates of elasticity figures as well as revenue potentials of future proposed reform in tobacco and alcohol taxes.

Almost one month after the first request letter was sent, AER was able to get hold of the hard copy of the following files from the DOH the raw data of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) 2015 Smoking Survey and copies of Administration Order (AO) 2016 – 0039 and Department Memo (2016 – 0257) that shows plan on access to mental health facilities.

However, the DOH also denied the CSO’s request for the raw data of the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2015, even as its request for details on the budget and allocation to support mental health plan of government remains pending..

Meanwhile, the BIR was able to provide in printed form all two documents requested by ABI-Health.

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* The Bantay Kita (BK) requested from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) copies of the Directory of CSOs that are members of the Multi-partite Monitoring Teams (MMTs) and accredited for mining oversight, and the requirements for CSO accreditation. In addition, Bantay Kita asked for information about whether was a centralized database and clear process for CSO selection in mining oversight committees exist.

Bantay Kita’s first request letter was sent to DENR in October 2016, but the agency took the first step to act on the request only in January 2017. The request was passed around from one office to another.

DENR’s failure to respond positively to the request has bolstered Bantay Kita’s position that there is a need for “a credible selection process and database of CSOs in mining oversight.” The extended delay in gathering information on CSO members of the MMT has hampered the efforts of environment CSOs to provide capacity-building activities that would enable them to perform their duties well.

Accessing information in state agencies is better enabled if CSOs and citizens know exactly which agencies or persons they must approach, and it would be “best if you already know someone from the office,” Bantay Kita said.

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* The Center For Migrant Advocacy (CMA) filed requests with three agencies — the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) — to secure the following information:

• The number of Filipino fishers and seafarers processed and deployed by POEA annually;
• Their places of origin (town and province) in the Philippines;
• The countries/ territories of their deployment/ employment;
• Cases of distressed fishers and seafarers filed with POEA, BFAR, and IACAT, and the status of these cases; and
• The manning/crewing agencies for fishers and seafarers.
This is the second FOI Practice project of R2RKN that CMA has participated in. In its first project in 2014, CMA noted that the POEA was “accommodating and reliable,” and provided the information CMA had requested within 15 working days.

“What facilitates sufficient response is CMA’s active and positive work relations with POEA and its officers,” CMA reported. Still, it took CMA two sets of request letter for the missing cases — before and after the Christmas holidays.

“We believe that their failure to respond during the holidays is understandable within the bounds of Filipino Christmas culture when some tasks are overwhelmed by the Christmas season and activities, even in the NGO community,” CMA said. For this set of request letters, CMA did not cite Duterte’s FOI EO as basis; CMA did not also furnish the Office of the Ombudsman or the Civil Service Commission copies of these letters.

“What may be notable is that when they first responded to the information request, they did not explain why the (documents on the) cases were missing,” CMA said.

“We first followed up 26 workdays after the original request. We followed up again… after the Christmas holidays, 38 workdays from the first follow up letter,” CMA said. In the intervening period, POEA’s Office in Charge, Deputy Administrator Aristodes Ruaro, who received CMA’s original request, was replaced by Labor department Undersecretary Dominador R. Say of POEA OIC.

The staff of POEA Ramona Quijano called five days after CMA sent its second follow-up letter, and five more days later, provided copies of the case files of the fishers and seafarers. In all, CMA said POEA took 74 working days to act on the remaining request.

In contrast to POEA, “BFAR did not even formally acknowledge much less respond to our request.” CMA sees two reasons for the agency’s inaction: “they may not have the information that we were asking for although a leader of a national fishers network said we could ask them… (and) we have had not had any interaction with BFAR before.”

IACAT, for its part, responded to the request only 12 days after it received CMA’s original request, and in part because CMA had submitted by then a follow-up letter. “The Executive Director e-mailed on the 13th day that she does not open her yahoo (account) regularly and will instruct her staff to send the information.” CMA received the case files 14 days from date of original e-mail request, and two days from the follow up e-mail.

CMA notes that agency action on FOI requests seem to be hampered by the failure of officials to check their email accounts regularly, or telephone calls that are not being answered apparently because no staff personnel are assigned to the task.

CMA’s request has centered on data it needs to inform the conduct of its project for fishers and seafarers in pilot areas, to discern which manning agencies have been engaged in good and bad practices, and as part of its research for a situational analysis on what makes fishers and seafarers vulnerable to illegal recruitment and human trafficking.

“Unfortunately,” CMA said, “there is minimal information regarding fishers. We were hoping that BFAR could give additional information.”

From its second FOI practice project, CMA said it realized that “the request for data has to be clear so that the government agency can immediately comply with the request.” Too, it is best to combine all communication tools –requests sent by email or fax, periodic follow-up phone calls, especially before 15 working day deadline for agency action on requests lapses.

Just as important, CMA said, enrolling these data in log sheets provided by PCIJ as reference for the CSOs “is also a key requirement in FOI practice.”

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* The Checkmyschool (CMS) Philippines of the ANSA-EAP (Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia-Pacific) requested from the Department of Education a copy of the utilization report by schools of its Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) budget for Fiscal Year 2015.

CMS filed its first request letter sent via email and fax to DepEd through its Budget Office on October 3, 2016. As of February 20, 2017, or four months later, later, CMS has not received the document it requested.

In a follow-up correspondence between October 6 and 13, 2016 with the staff of the Budget Office, CMS was “constantly reassured of the availability of the information requested.”

“However, as a matter of protocol, the file could not be transmitted to CMS due to the absence of the go-signal of Mr. Selwyn Briones, OIC of the Budget Office,” CMS reported.

On October 27, CMS made a third follow-up call to the Budget Office, but “Mr. Jesus de la Merced of the Budget Office informed us that the OIC has not yet given the go-signal to transmit the file to CMS.”

CMS deems it important for government agencies to “remove the go-signal requirement for documents not enlisted in the list of exceptions for easier access to information.” Even more important, CMS said, DepEd could “disseminate the MOOE utilization report of schools in the DepEd website for full public disclosure.”

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* The Freedom From Debt Coalition (FDC) submitted request letters to access information from two agencies — the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Bureau of Treasury. The mixed results: it got all the documents it wanted in less than a week’s time from the DA, but from the Treasury, in 38 days’ time.

It filed its first request letter on Aug. 23, 2016 with the Department of Agriculture for project documents covering its Philippine Rural Development Project (PRDP), apart from those already accessible through the PRDP website (www.daprdp.net).

FDC asked, in particular, for the following documents:

• The complete and updated reports on the implementation of all components of the project;
• Coverage area;
• Target and actual beneficiaries;
• Financial statements specifying how the funds were spent;
• Programmed allocation and actual disbursements for each project component and area;
• List of people and/or institutions responsible in decision-making for project execution and financial management; and
• All other documents on the PRDP not mentioned above that would facilitate FDC’s study on the project and its impact.

FDC’s first letter was hand-carried to the DA office and sent through electronic mail.

Apart from writing to the DA, the FDC also sent two request letters to the Bureau of the Treasury’s Statistical Data Analysis Division (SDAD) to secure the National Government (NG) Selected Fiscal Statistics and Regular Foreign Liabilities.

The Bureau of Treasury received FDC’s first request letter on Aug. 26, 2016 for historical data on NG cash operations report, outstanding debt, debt service and list or schedule of regular and contingent liabilities from the time of the late President Ferdinand Marcos up to that of former President Gloria Arroyo.

On Oct. 28, 2016, FDC sent a second request to the Bureau for historical data on the National Government’s foreign debt service for its regular liabilities, by creditor, from 1986 up to the present, which would include the following details:

• Loan account;
• Loan ID;
• Project/Purpose;
• Implementing Agencies;
• Interest Rate/Type and other charges;
• Last repayment date;
• Principal payment;
• Interest payment/other charges; and
• Outstanding amount.

FDC received documents from the two agencies in less than a week except for the second set of statistics from the BTr-SDAD.

The DA-PRDP sent pertinent documents that fulfilled the information needs identified in FDC’s letter. The documents, with a cover letter dated Aug. 26, 2016, were hand-carried to FDC’s office by a staff of the DA a week after the agency received the request for information.

Five days after FDC’s letter, the BTr-SDAD emailed a spreadsheet of National Government Selected Fiscal Statistics from 1986 to 2015. No figures on the Marcos years were supplied. Upon inquiry, SDAD replied that it did not have statistics earlier than 1986.

However, the Bureau of Treasury’s response to FDC’s second request for statistics was slow. “BTr-SDAD took 38 working days before it emailed a spreadsheet on the National Government External Debt Service from 1989 to 2016,” FDC reported. “Again, there were missing data as concerned information needs identified by FDC—no statistics were given for years 1986 to 1988.”

FDC said: “The quick availability of documents from the DA-PRDP and BTr-SDAD (on the first set of statistics) was a significant factor in facilitating the work of FDC in monitoring the fiscal situation of the national government and its borrowing activities and loan repayments.”

“BTr-SDAD’s second spreadsheet on NG foreign debt, however, came late for FDC’s immediate use for it in 2016. But it would still be helpful in this year’s coming engagements on the audit of 20 cases of questionable foreign loans,” it added.

FDC lamented though that, “what was noticeable was the lack of a quick acknowledgment of receipt of requests.”

“There was also no advice on when and how FDC’s needs for information would be fulfilled and who would be responsible for handling them. These details should be immediately provided to the requesting party so as to establish expectations on the parameters of the government agency’s actions on demands for access to information,” FDC said.

In addition, “it is important, and should be a requirement, for agency staff members, who are tasked to respond to queries, to be knowledgeable of the scope of the agency’s work—operations, functions, responsibilities, among others—and what content it makes readily available on its websites. Had this been the case with the PRDP office, misinformation, which could be interpreted as a damper on any claim for access to information, could have been avoided.”

FDC said agencies “should present an explanation whenever they are unable to release information expected from them or of which they are supposed to be repositories.”

“The absence of an explanation could easily be an indication of inefficiency, lack of coordination within a department and/or among concerned agencies, and disregard for people’s right to know, or worse, a curt denial of access to information,” it said.

While the response to FDC’s requests was “generally commendable,” FDC said its practice of access to information “still points to the need for a legislated FOI that will cover all branches of the government, and that will put in place disciplinary actions or penalties for violations of the law.”

According to FDC, “the current Executive Order on FOI opens up spaces, but still sets limits to people’s enjoyment of their right to know.” — PCIJ-R2RKN, March 2017