ENACTING a freedom of information (FOI) bill is one of the most urgent and long overdue reforms that policymakers can do to enhance governance, make government transactions more transparent, and hold public officials more accountable for their actions.
This is the recommendation of the policy paper “Pushing for Greater Transparency and Accountability through Freedom of Information,” released by the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD) of the House of Representatives.
The Philippines has yet to pass an FOI bill that mandates the government to open public records to public scrutiny.
Enacting this law will improve governance because with greater transparency and accountability, “people in government can be held accountable for their actions and decisions,” the paper says.
Without such a bill, “it would be difficult to determine whether the promised services/outcomes were economically, efficiently and effectively delivered.”
Based on the Corruption Perception Index 2008-2012 of Transparency International, a global organization fighting corruption, the Philippine ranking in curbing fraudulent conduct improved from 129th in 2011 to 105th in 2012.
Consequently, the country’s position among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations inched up from seventh to fifth place, overtaking Indonesia and Vietnam.
“It may be noted, however, that the Philippines still remains at the bottom third of 174 countries evaluated,” the CPBRD brief pointed out.
The right to information is already guaranteed in the Philippine Constitution, but the problem is that it is “subject to limitations.” The FOI law will give teeth to the exercise of this right.
Aurea Sempio, who authored the position paper, explained that efforts to legislate such a law have been stalled by serious debates on what information should be exempt from public consumption.
Most of the disagreements have centered on whether to exclude information pertaining to public contracts and agreements, funds and guarantees provided to the private sector, and matters related to national security.
Sempio added that, this inability to come to a consensus, is the reason the bill has failed to get passed since the Eighth Congress, “despite the declared urgency of the FOI.”
Notably, there have been efforts to check corruption in government, and they are starting to pay off “although much remains to be done,” according to the document.
Some government transactions have been already made available for public scrutiny, mostly limited to financial operations, such as financial statements, bids and public offerings, lump-sum funds like the so-called pork barrel or Priority Development Assistance Fund, and Internal Revenue Allotment.
“People also need to know if the terms and conditions of contracts and agreements entered into by the government have prioritized the general interest of its citizens,” the paper stressed.
A long-term benefit of an FOI law is that even with a change in leadership, the citizen’s access to public documents is assured, no matter who is in power.
The paper cited the experiences of other countries, which have enacted an FOI law, and suggested that lawmakers look into them for insights on how to deal with the challenges of its passage.
Economist Roberto de Ocampo agrees that a freedom of information bill is necessary to promote transparency, accountability, and good governance across all government agencies.
De Ocampo said that the Philippines is ranked by the World Economic Forum at no. 92 in transparency of government policymaking, behind Asean neighbors Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, and Indonesia, but ahead of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.
He added that there is “a high perception of corruptibility in the bureaucracy,” and that an FOI bill “will ensure a level and transparent playing field for enterprises, which, in turn, will encourage faster expansion of our industries and contribute to inclusive growth.”