MORE THAN three months after the Freedom of Information (FOI) Executive Order took effect on Nov. 25, 2016, requests for data from state agencies have been coming in, but not at the volume expected by government officials.
Yet the relative low number has not meant quick processing for several of the requests, leaving some requestors in a snit. Requestor Wilson Chua for instance says of the online portal eFOI: “The site is not very helpful. It feels more like window dressing.”
Chua’s four requests for information, which he filed with three different agencies, are among the 503 requests received by 64 agencies since late November last year to March 14, 2017. The eFOI’s home page actually indicates 640 requests were submitted during that period, but Michel Kristian R. Ablan, Assistant Secretary for Policy and Legislative Affairs at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), said that the disparity is due to test requests submitted during the portal’s initial roll last year.
“We can’t remove anymore those test requests during the initial roll out,” Ablan told PCIJ recently. “Those are already in the system.”
In any case, of the 503 requests, 166 were listed to have been “partially or fully successfully processed,” another 183 “denied,” and the balance of 154, “pending or for processing.”
These numbers indicate a volume far from the deluge anticipated by the government, especially after it put up the eFOI portal as an alternative way to file requests for information with select agencies. Observed Ablan: “Various groups had fought for the Freedom of Information for many years. So when it actually took effect last year, we were expecting a bulk of requests, but it didn’t happen.”
Then again, the low number shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ablan himself admitted, “According to the consultations we had made with various stakeholders, most of the information the public wants to know are not covered by the Executive Order. Most of the people need to get information from the Congress or their local government units (LGUs). These are not covered by the FOI.”
LGUs are not required but encouraged to join the FOI program by passing an ordinance, said Ablan. In the meantime, the number of national agencies currently part of the eFOI portal is just a meagre 32 percent of the total 200.
Born in July
President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 2, the FOI-enabling order, on July 23, 2016. The order operationalizes the public’s Constitutional right to information and “provides the State policies to full public disclosure and transparency in the public service.”
With the EO, the public can now make requests before all government offices under the Executive Branch, including government-owned or -controlled corporations (GOCCs) and state universities and colleges (SUCs). Not allowed for public access, however, are certain information that could put into jeopardy the privacy of the agency concerned and matters of national security.
Ablan’s PCOO is tasked to implement and operationalize the FOI program as it serves as the coordinator of all participating government agencies. Or as Ablan put it, “The PCOO has been designated to orient about and supervise the implementation of the FOI program. We are also tasked to monitor compliance of all agencies with the instructions from the manual.”
The manual he is referring to is the People’s FOI Manual that government agencies are required to have to guide the public in making requests.
Goal: 200 nat’l agencies
According to Ablan, the PCOO aims to have all the 200 national attached agencies join the eFOI portal by end of November 2017, all GOCCs by next year, and SUCs by 2019. He notes, “Even it’s not indicated in the Executive Order, the PCOO also established the portal to allow the public submit their requests.”
“We are doing trainings and roadshows to raise awareness about the FOI,” Ablan also said. “It seems in the grassroots, even we already started the implementation on November last year, there is still little awareness about this. We still need to inform and empower the public.”
PCOO plans to collect inventories of requests from all the agencies per quarter, particularly from those that have yet to join the eFOI portal, he said.
There are two ways to file an FOI request. The first mode is by placing a request in writing by filling out a form and submitting to the concerned agency’s Receiving Officer (RO). After the request is validated – ideally on the same day it was filed — it is forwarded to the Decision Maker (DM) to check if the agency holds the information requested, as well as if it is accessible or if it is a repeat of any previous request. The request is then given to the concerned officials to find the information requested. If needed, the head of the agency would provide clearance prior to the release of information.
“For requestors who are illiterate and disabled, the agency’s RO can assist you by filling out the form and encoding the information in the portal,” said Ablan.
Deadline: 15 working days
The second mode of filing is through the eFOI platform, which requires the requestor to first create an account before submitting a request for information. After the needed fields are completed, the request is sent and forwarded to the RO of the concerned agency. The same process of validation, retrieval, and approval of release is done in this platform. If the request is approved, the reply will be posted in the user’s account.
The set maximum processing time for both platforms is 15 working days. In some cases, though, the agency may need an extension to study the request some more. In such instances, the agency is supposed to inform the requestor, while the extension should not be longer than 20 working days.
In the online portal eFOI, a request is tagged ‘accepted’ if it has been accepted by the RO and forwarded to the DM. If the RO has not yet opened the request, it is tagged ‘pending.’
The request is tagged ‘processing’ once the DM acknowledges receipt and starts working on the response. The requestor, though, can be required to submit additional details about the request, which would then be tagged ‘awaiting clarification.’
When PCIJ took a look at the portal recently, however, 12 requests dated November 2016 to January 2017 were still waiting for clarification as of March 14, 2017. Given the set time for processing requests, these queries should have already had responses.
“We are still addressing this concern,” said Ablan. “Most of the DMs respond to the requests directly and fail to update the status in the portal. We still need to remind the DMs to close the loop by tagging the request as successful.”
A requestor can actually write an appeal letter addressed to the person in authority should an agency fail to provide a response within the set processing time. Action on the appeal is supposed to take place within 30 working days of its submission.
The requestor can also file an appropriate case in a court if all administrative remedies have been exhausted and no resolution was made.
Ablan said that his office aims to have a seamless coordination and referral system among all the agencies, GOCCs, and SUCs in terms of processing the requests.
“This is still a learning curve for us,” Ablan said. “Hopefully, once all the agencies, GOCCs and SUCs are on board in the portal, we could easily trace if a request has been forwarded to another agency which can answer better the request.”
A request tagged as ‘processing’ could later be classified as either ‘successful’ or ‘denied.’ As of March 14, 2017, 35 requests were still labelled ‘processing.’ Since last November, 183 requests have been denied, while successful – either partially or fully — requests have reached 166.
Among those who have come away from the eFOI portal pleased and satisfied is an investment analyst for a multinational bank, who said, “I did receive a valid explanation with further instructions on how to secure the information I need. Generally, I am very satisfied with the portal.”
“One particular interesting experience I had was when requesting data on car registration from the Land Transportation Office (LTO),” recounted the analyst, who requested anonymity. “It took a while but I was surprised when someone from the LTO called my office informing me that the information I needed is ready for pick up at their office.”
Top-rank list, by denials
Some agencies, though, seem to be swatting down requests by the dozen. By the number of requests they have denied out of the total requests they have received via the eFOI portal as of March 14, 2017, the following agencies may be considered to be in top rank in terms of their refusal to grant access to information requests.
• Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), with 20 requests denied and five pending, out of 25 total requests received;
• National Archives of the Philippines, with 10 requests denied and eight pending, out of 19 total requests received;
• Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), with 41 requests denied out of 52 total requests received;
• Department of Budget and Management (DBM), with 11 requests denied and 10 pending, out of 37 total requests received;
• Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), with 39 requests denied and nine pending out of 93 total requests received;
• Department of Transportation (DOTr), with 21 requests denied and five pending, out of 53 total requests received; and
• Department of Finance (DOF), with 10 requests denied out of 25 total requests received.
Three agencies are in a similarly unusual situation of apparent opaqueness.
The first two — Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) and Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) — had denied all the requests they had separately received during the period.
PCIJ called up PCGG to ask why it had turned down the FOI requests, but was told no one was on hand to answer such queries because of a commission-wide event. As for PPA, the body’s Public Information Officer, Christopher Paringit, explained, “One problem we have seen is that the public is not usually aware what the core business of PPA is. We receive questions on vessel safety, which is under MARINA, (and) shore safety, which is under the Coast Guard.”
Paringit also said that his office, the Corporate Communications Office, and the Office of the Corporate Board Secretary (OCBS), work hand in hand in responding to requests.
The third, the Philippine National Police (PNP), had 43 requests “pending” out of 43 total requests it had received. Sought for an explanation, PNP Spokesman Senior Superintendent Dionardo Carlos told PCIJ that one reason for this is that some of the information requested might be classified.
“We comply with the FOI,” he said. “However, if the request submitted requires more time to be reviewed and the data should be coming from various offices — we cannot respond right away.”
“I still need to see the requests sent in the portal,” Carlos also said. “However, as a practice, if a formal request is sent to us, we answer in less than 72 hours.”
Meanwhile, 26 of the 64 agencies featured in the eFOI portal have all received zero access to information requests as of March 14, 2017.
Interestingly, it is the PCOO which has emerged as having the most number of denied requests, with 41 out of 52 requests submitted. Said Ablan: “The people thought all requests should be sent to us. Taking a closer look at the requests, some of them should be responded by another agency. We received requests of which answers should come from the Department of Budget and Management for example.”
This is not happening only to PCOO apparently, according to Ablan. “Some requests are being denied because these have been submitted to the wrong agency,” he said. “In these instances, the agency sent a reply to the requestor and the request is forwarded to the appropriate agency.”
“Some requestors ask for multiple data or documents which the agencies could not release all the same time,” he added. “In these cases, the DM is required to send an explanation for the partial response to the request.”
The requests shown in the portal as of March 14, 2017 indicate that the top three nature/purpose of requests are: general research and information (43.74 percent), additional knowledge (such as for reporting, news research, information dissemination, class reporting and discussion, 27.43 percent), and academic and business research and development (14.51 percent).
Last Dec. 10, senior high school student Gabriel Fordan filed a request for the History of Kalumpang, Marikina from the National Archives of the Philippines. Fordan had intended to use the information for school work; he is still waiting for any kind of movement on his request.
“My request is still for processing the last time I checked,” he said. “Actually, it was just marked for processing last Jan. 27, more than a month after I requested. When the response took longer than I expected, I just used other sources for my school work. If ever my request gets to be approved, I think I can still use it in my current research or for future use.”
1 of 4 granted
As for requestor William Chua, only one of his four requests for information has been granted. Chua had submitted that request — on the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program — on December 13, 2016 to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). More than three months later, the requested information was finally released by another agency, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
Chua is a data analyst and journalist and was after specific data for stories he was doing for various publications. The Department of Health (DOH) denied his request for the number of doctors per barangay. But Chua seems particularly peeved with DICT, which denied his two separate requests for data on radio frequencies.
“(DICT) couldn’t produce the information I requested,” said Chua. “They even (turned me down) using boiler-plate response so I gave up using the FOI site.”
He also said that DICT “promised to give me the list of frequencies (NTC) by February. It is now March.”
PCOO’s Ablan, though, said that improvements in the system are coming. He told PCIJ that the DM and RO will soon be allowed to reply directly to the requestor through additional buttons in the eFOI portal.
“All in all, our goal is to have a simple portal, which could the public use to submit their queries and get answers easier,” Ablan said. “The buttons, dropdown menu, and even the charts will be improved soonest.”— PCIJ, March 2017