Friday, October 24, 2014

Freedom of information: A good idea from India

One of the better ideas for freedom of information implemented overseas is disclosure logs - agencies posting requests and responses publicly, allowing performance to be monitored and reducing repeat requests. This is widespread in Australia and the UK, but poorly implemented in New Zealand. But now India has taken the idea a step further, with a single, nationwide disclosure-log:

All Indian government agencies have been told to post online their replies to Right to Information Act requests by the end of the month.

The ministry overseeing the administration of the Indian RTI Act on Oct. 21 announced a new website feature that will allow placement of replies on the RTI Online system.

Agencies were instructed to contact the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) for directions on the system upgrade. A one page memo by Sandeep Jain says the goal is to implement the policy by Oct. 31.

[Requests which include personal information won't be included]

The utility of the system will depend greatly on searchability and how good agencies are at tagging releases. But these are not difficult problems. And the advantages are huge. For a start, it will enable the collection of national statistics, not just about numbers, but also about the amount and type of information released. It will also allow appeal authorities to spot problems - e.g. if an agency is consistently misinterpreting the law, or making dubious withholding decisions. And of course its a huge benefit to journalists, academics and historians examining government policy.

We should do this here. It wouldn't require a law change, just a decision by the government to develop (or acquire) the software and fund the server. And the improvement in openness would be tremendous.