INFOmart: Accessing government information as a right
Section 7 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution emphasizes the right of the people to information on matters of public concern. However, 30 years since the first Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill was filed, the Philippine Congress has yet to pass a legislation that promotes access to information
One of the main challenges of citizens in the “new normal” is access to government information on projects and initiatives that they can apply for, answers basic questions about government services, and offer other resources to cope with the current Covid-19 Pandemic crisis. The multistakeholder forum that Tabang Bikol Movement spearheaded on June 8 last year with the NEDA, DSWD, DILG, and other national government agencies in the region highlighted the need to facilitate access to information about government plans, programs, and projects. These services are primarily critical countermeasures to minimize the impact of the Pandemic, reduce vulnerabilities, help build resilience among communities, promote participation from concerned sectors, and assist in rebooting the local economy.
I mentioned the extreme difficulty of ordinary people, their organizations, and communities to know at once and thoroughly access the mandated government support services. While these may be available on different platforms, there is a need to consolidate needed information, simplify processes, make access more practical, transparent, systematic, safe, and easy to understand. Therefore, implementing a solution has become more imperative, especially with a new administration - not necessarily known to be open and easy to access - soon to take power.
Right to Information
The NGAs and local government units (LGUs) also face the challenge of disseminating information on government plans, projects, programs, and initiatives that local citizens can avail of. The citizens’ right to information is mandated under Executive Order No. 02, the first presidential act of the elected President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. EO No. 02 aims at “operationalizing …the people’s constitutional right to information and the state policies to full disclosure and transparency in the public service…” Section 3 of the said EO provides that “every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and documents, and papers… as well as research data used as the basis for policy development.” In addition, Section 10 states that “government offices shall not charge any fee for accepting requests for access to information.” Similarly, in his Administrative Order No. 34 of October 23, 2020, President Duterte spoke about “transparency, accountability and good governance that the government commits to do …for efficient and effective management of public resources.”
Adding to the importance of transparency and accountability, succeeding laws and other instructions emphasize the posting on government websites of information, including “the minutest details like the project title, location, and approved budget.” A major example of such laws is the Mandanas Ruling by the Supreme Court. This law increases the internal revenue allotment (IRA) of LGUs by 55 percent in the 2022 budget, giving them a more significant role in planning and implementing national government services in their localities to make governance more inclusive. According to the World Bank, “if properly coordinated and implemented across levels of government, this Ruling could improve the lives of the people and communities especially those from the government’s growth centers.”
However, if not rolled out well, the World Bank warns that “the Ruling could result in worsening gap in service delivery which is especially costly in the midst of a historic recession in a health crisis.” Therefore, it is crucial to find the most deserving people who should benefit from government services and programs and maximize and sustain their desired impact on the communities.
With the perceived ineptness of many LGUs in the country, it is also urgent to help them improve their efficiency, judicious use of authority, and transparent use of public funds. If properly implemented, the Ruling can also allow “citizens to participate in decision making, help monitor and have effective channels to be heard to enhance accountability.”
INFOmart: A Solution for transparency
As a solution to the information dissemination and access challenge, the TBM has linked up with the Regional Development Council which has NEDA as its secretariat and the DICT, the DOST, and other stakeholders to help realize the desired goals of the “INFOmart Bikol.” The RDC is the highest policy-making body that primarily coordinates and directs all economic and social development efforts in the region involving the government’s 24 NGAs, the private sector, and other development actors. TBM is an RDC-accredited not-for-profit, non-government organization of volunteers from different sectors and expertise in the academe, farming, health and science, maritime, professionals, women entrepreneurs promoting HEAL (Health, Environment and Alternative Livelihood) program for resilient and sustainable communities.
The spirit behind the INFOmart project is about transparency, accountability, people participation, and efficiency. It should be a cost-effective, easy-to-navigate, one-stop virtual information exchange platform on government programs and services – standard for all government offices in the region and easily accessible for public use. According to its original intent, how this technology-driven platform will perform depends so much on the government’s political will, the engagement of all stakeholders, the participation and increased level of satisfaction of the end-users – the people -when engaging with national and local government agencies. In time, it also hopes to help achieve Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG) on Gender Equality, SDG 8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 9 on Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.
The INFOmart’s opening coincides with the start of the new 6-year administration. Let’s see how the new administration will respond to the people’s right to information.