Triggers & barriers to access

A CLEAR, working system – with specific procedures and dedicated staff personnel – triggers quick, correct, and complete action by some government agencies on access to information requests.

But the absence of such a system in most other agencies, as well as the lack of fully defined rules and procedures that all agencies must observe in responding to requests, remain barriers to access.

The bad results: inordinate delays, token compliance with lawful deadlines, disregard for the Constitution’s guarantees of the public’s right to know, and a general slide to secrecy, not transparency, in most of the bureaucracy under the Aquino administration.

For instance, requests for copies of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) that the PCIJ filed with the secretaries of Finance and Interior and Local Government drew quick and correct action.

The requests were forwarded promptly to the departments’ respective personnel units that had copies of the documents. The personnel units approved the. requests like these were regular office transactions. Ahead of the 10 working days’ deadline in law for agencies to act on SALN requests, the two institutions got the work done.

In contrast, most other agencies moved exceedingly slow on similar requests, flipped and tossed the requests to other agencies, or simply ignored and rebuffed the requests outright.

The Office of the President and the Ombudsman are the stellar examples of restrictive, inefficient access to information regimes in place today.

Yet another is the Philippine National Police. Over the last three months since Feb. 18, the PNP has passed around the PCIJ’s request for SALNs to at least five PNP units: from the office of the PNP director-general to the office of the PNP Internal Affairs Service, to the office of the PNP Chief of the Directorial Staff, to the PNP Public Information Office (PIO), and finally, to the PNP Directorate for Personnel and Records Management (DPRM).

Three months and five offices later, the PNP has yet to provide the PCIJ a single page of a single SALN that any of its top cops had filed.

On Apr. 26, or 10 weeks after the PCIJ request was filed, the PNP’s PIO told PCIJ that the request should be sent to the PNP-DPRM, where a staff personnel told the PCIJ that it is the PNP-PIO that should decide on the matter. The PNP-DPRM staff said the information enrolled in the SALNs are “sensitive.” The employee later advised to the PCIJ to write another letter addressed to the PNP chief, with a note of attention to the DPRM head.

Multiple layers of bureaucracy, buck-passing, inordinate delays, and seeming indifference to or ignorance of the relevant laws on the part of some agencies – all these barriers are sure to test the patience and stamina of those filing requests for access to SALNs and other documents.

This was the situation in the House of Representatives for three years’ running under Speaker Prospero Nograles Jr. of the 14th Congress, which lingers in part to this day under Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. of the 15th Congress.

The PCIJ’s request for the SALNs of House members made the rounds and went back and forth in multiple office units of the chamber – the office of the Secretary-General, which forwarded the request to the House Legal Division and to the offices of all the members of the House.

The Legal Division later sent back the PCIJ request to the Secretary General for her approval. After this was granted, the Secretary General’s Office moved a transmittal letter with its stamp of approval to the House Records Division.

But the run-around did not stop there. Follow-up calls had to be made with the House Records Office before it finally acknowledged the Secretary General’s approval and actually allowed the release of the SALNs for reproduction.

This resort to red tape also marked the action of the Office of the Ombudsman to similar requests that the PCIJ had separately filed with the nation’s top integrity agency. Under just-resigned Ombudsman Ma. Merceditas N. Gutierrez, the agency had reverted to old, restrictive procedures in dealing with requests for SALNs.

The requests filed with Gutierrez’s office were referred first to the Office of Legal Affairs so it could study and recommend action on the same. The catch was that the recommendations of the Office of Legal Affairs had to be sent back to Gutierrez for her final approval.

Despite these restrictive and redundant procedures, however, the PCIJ encountered some officials who demonstrated exemplary openness and respect for the public’s right to know.

This honored and honorable roster includes Commission on Elections (Comelec) Commissioner Rene V. Sarmiento and three House members:  Batanes Rep. Henedina R. Abad, Lanao del Sur Rep. Mohammed Hussein P. Pangandaman, and Abante Mindanao Party-List Rep. Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr.  Without any need for prodding, all four, on their own volition, gave the PCIJ copies of their SALNs via fax or mail. They did so even while their agencies, the Comelec and the House, had yet to act fully on the PCIJ’s requests for SALNs.

In the case of the Armed Forces and some executive departments, avoidance of action and retreat to higher ground or superior agencies defined the token action that agencies made on the PCIJ’s requests for SALNs.  Their usual resort was to refer the requests to either the Office of the President, the Civil Service Commission, or the Ombudsman.

But while some agencies are secretive about the SALNs of their top officials, they are also more open to granting requests for other documents that they hold in custody.

The Comelec generously shared documents on the election spending reports filed by candidates in the May 2010 elections, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Budget and Management documents on the Conditional Cash Transfer Program, the Sandiganbayan databases on the status of graft and corruption cases filed before its courts, and the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Trade and Industry on certificates of registration of business entities.

Amid these hopeful signs of openness though are hints of mistrust, indifference to transparency laws, or even contempt toward people seeking access to information that some civil servants apparently harbor still.

In exchanges with the PCIJ staff, some have made side comments that disclosing the SALNs may pose “security risks” for their officials, that the documents may only be released through a court order, or that the documents supposedly contain “confidential” information.  – PCIJ, May 2011