- Local think tank’s assessment of 31 public authorities including Ministries, the Prez’s/PM’s Offices, finds low levels of Govt. openness
- Observes only a marginal lifting of the veil of secrecy
Despite the fact that it has been five years since the Right to Information (RTI) Act was fully operationalised in Sri Lanka, various aspects pertaining to the proactive disclosure of information by public authorities, the Government openness score has only increased by 8% and stands at 33%, as per an assessment conducted by the local think tank Verité Research. The low Government openness score demonstrates the need for the Government to improve its overall content disclosure and usability ratings, according to the assessment’s findings.
A report based on the assessment titled “Proactive Disclosure under the RTI Act in Sri Lanka: Ranking Public Authorities” issued this week, examined the compliance of public authorities with proactive disclosure under the RTI Act. It had monitored 29 Cabinet Ministries and the Offices of the President and the Prime Minister. A total of 31 public authorities had been assessed, and the monitoring period for the assessment spanned from 1 December of last year (2022), to 31 December 2022. In terms of the overall composite scores, the majority of the public authorities (81%) had scored within the “moderately unsatisfactory” band, while only 19% of public authorities had scored within the “moderately satisfactory” band. In comparison to 2017, there has been a slight improvement in the overall composite scores.
With regard to content disclosure, the assessment had ranked public authorities according to their scores across the 30 subcategories, and the assessment was language neutral (content availability had been assessed regardless of the language in which the information was disclosed).
Four types of information fell within the subcategory based scoring. “Where currency was required but completeness was irrelevant, the mandate, the organisational structure, and the strategic plan were taken into account. Where currency was irrelevant but completeness was relevant, details regarding public meetings and consultations, successful awards and the publication of the award, the information index, and the notification of project commencement were taken into account.
Where both currency and completeness were relevant, 19 factors had been taken into account. Among them were, functions and powers, the names and contact information of executive grade public officials, disaggregated payment information pertaining to remunerations, emoluments, and allowances of executive grade public officials, internal rules, regulations and instructions, project and activity reports, decision making procedures, the description of the services offered to the public, circulars and regulations, policy memoranda and draft legislation, the publication of tenders, and RTI requesting procedures.
The report said that the majority of the public authorities scored within the “moderately unsatisfactory” band, and that in comparison to 2017, there has been some improvement in the content disclosure scores. The three public authorities that scored the highest for content disclosure were the Ministries of Agriculture, Public Administration, and Environment. The three public authorities that scored the lowest for content disclosure were the Office of the President, the Ministry of Technology and the Office of the Premier. Information disclosure had been analysed under three thematic areas, i.e.public accountability, public accessibility, and disclosures pertaining to the RTI.
“With regard to public accountability, 96% of the public authorities were scored for budgets, expenditure and finances, based on the 2023 Budget information available on the website of the Ministry of Finance. A total of 42% of public authorities scored full points for the publication of tenders. However, only 6% of public authorities scored full points for successful awards and the publication of awards, indicating that while tender notices are published, the awards of tenders are not publicised. Low content disclosure on procurement awards means that inconsistencies in awards cannot be challenged,” the report said, adding that proactive disclosure of procurement awards is crucial to enable the public scrutiny of the procurement process.
As per the report, when it comes to public accessibility, the “public participation” category was amongst the lowest scoring categories across all the public authorities. Several public authorities had not provided information under the “public services” category, the report said, noting that low content disclosure in this area may impede public participation in Government decision making.
“With regard to disclosures pertaining to the RTI, 10 public authorities did not publish ‘contact information of the information officer and/or the designated officer’. While proactively disclosing information already supplied under the RTI Act would make the exercise of the RTI more efficient, the majority of public authorities scored zero for this subcategory. The majority of public authorities performed poorly in disclosing information under ‘prior disclosures of public investments’ under Section 9 of the RTI Act. Low content disclosure in this thematic area is indicative of poor implementation by the public authorities of the RTI Act and its subsequent regulations,” it was noted.
The usability of the disclosed information
Meanwhile, the report added that usability (the usability of the information that has been proactively disclosed) improved very slightly in 2022, with the majority of the public authorities falling within the “moderately unsatisfactory” band and 29% of the public authorities falling within the “moderately satisfactory” band.
The assessment had looked into three aspects of usability, i.e.language accessibility, ease of access and the format (in which the information had been provided).
“Usability was scored across all the subcategories in the rating system. A usability assessment is conducted because while it is important that public authorities proactively disclose information, disclosure alone is not sufficient,” the report said, explaining three important aspects of usability that the assessment took into consideration, i.e. language (information is published in a language that people can understand), ease of access (people should be able to easily access information on the website and information should be published in an organised manner), and lastly, format (information must be in a suitable format so that it can easily be used).
The report explained that the highest aggregate score for language was for content disclosure in English, followed by the Sinhala language and Tamil. A tendency to de-prioritise the Sinhala language and Tamil language based content had been observed across several public authorities. However, the Ministry of Wildlife and the Office of the President had consistently disclosed information in all three languages. Noting that the language bias scores indicate that the Ministry of Wildlife and the Office of the President are the most language friendly public authorities, it noted that the Board of Investment (BOI) had a high bias against both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. The BOI also had a high bias against the Tamil language in comparison to both the English and Sinhala languages and is the least Tamil language friendly public authority, as per the report.
Regarding the factors that were taken into account when assessing the format (in which information had been disclosed), the report pointed out extraction friendly (information can be easily reused and shared, e.g. easily extractable/downloadable files, spreadsheets, Portable Document Format [PDF] files that do not ‘jumble’ the content when copy pasted), low re-usability (cannot be easily copied and pasted, non-reusable datasets and documents), and not reusable (images, scans, screenshots or locked PDF files).
Discussing the limitations that were applicable to the assessment, the report said that the assessment was based primarily on information proactively disclosed on the websites of Ministries and the Offices of the President and the Prime Minister, and that therefore, a limitation in the assessment is that it does not monitor the websites of departments, State Ministries or other bodies that fall under the purview of Ministries (except for the BOI which falls under the Ministry of Investment Promotion), or bodies that fall under the Offices of the President and the Prime Minister. The main reason for this limitation was the sheer volume of departments and agencies (approximately 400-plus institutions) falling under the 31 public authorities considered, as per the report.
Adding that during the monitoring for 2022, there were certain limitations that were not observed during the 2017 monitoring, the report said: “Firstly, directly comparing 2017 ministries to the 2022 ministries was difficult as many ministries had new institutions that fall under their purview. This means that the proactive disclosure of the 55 public authorities from 2017 and 31 public authorities from 2022 could not be directly compared due to the number of public authorities differing significantly.
Secondly, the Ministry of Investment Promotion did not have a website that could be used during the monitoring period from 1 December 2022, to 31 December 2022. Therefore, Verité monitored the website of the BOI, which is the largest institution that falls under the said Ministry.
Thirdly, this assessment does not consider public authorities’ compliance with online proactive disclosure related requirements under Section 10 of the RTI Act. Section 10 requires public authorities to submit annual reports to the RTI Commission detailing information such as the RTI requests received, rejected and appealed and fees collected. The 2017 assessment was conducted in July, 2017. Therefore, the disclosure of the annual report on a public authority’s website was not mandated at the time of the assessment, as the RTI Act only came into operation in February, 2017.