[Editors note: Prof. Samarajiva is at the time of writing, the Head of the Policy Planning Group, Milinda for Mayor Campaign. Groundviews is critical of all political parties and candidates, but not equally so. Prof. Samarajiva’s article is published here as the continuation of a lengthy exchange on the topic of RTI on Milinda Moragoda’s Facebook page. Please also read Milinda Moragoda: The gap between promise and reality.]
It appears that the commitment given to recognizing the Right to Information (RTI) by Milinda Moragoda in his Mayoral campaign has created both excitement and confusion. This is good.
The confusion appears to originate in the conflation of the national and the municipal. Some insist RTI cannot be implemented at city level when the central government has expressed no enthusiasm for it at the national level. Obviously, the Colombo Municipality cannot legislate for the central government. But it can legislate for itself, for functions that come under its authority.
Can the CMC give any citizen of Sri Lanka the right to request and obtain information on, say, the loan terms of a large construction project undertaken by a Ministry of the central government? No. Can it create a right to obtain information from a Ministry of a provincial government? No. Can it recognize such a right in relation to a subject under the authority of the Colombo Municipal Council, such as the allocation of stalls in a municipal market? Yes.
It may not be perfect, but this is how devolved power works. It is one thing to talk abstractly about devolution of power under the 13th Amendment Plus/Minus; Quite another to grasp how power can be pragmatically exercised in conditions of devolved authority at the local-government level.
There are fears and negative perceptions about RTI. Some may not think they are reasonable, but they are reasonable to those who hold them. I have run a government organization; I can empathize with them. Strident argument is just one way of addressing these concerns. Quiet demonstration is another.
RTI is a complicated right. It is not like simply turning on a switch. It can have unintended consequences. Fewer records may be kept of decisions because officials fear queries. Personal information may be released with dire consequences for unsuspecting third parties. Most RTI statutescontain exceptions to address these concerns. In some cases the exceptions will be so broad, or will be so broadly interpreted, that the right is made almost meaningless. Getting the balance right is not easy.
One could of course try it at the national level and tweak until it is right. Alternatively, one could try it out at a lower level of government on a small scale as a pilot; learn the lessons of what works and what needs fine tuning and scale up. There is no one right way.
There is no certainty that the CMC implementation will be scaled up. But those who wish to win RTI at the national level can leverage the experience in Colombo. It will, at least, do them no harm.
Why RTI is important to this election
Milinda Moragoda’s plans for Colombo cannot be implemented without a clean, efficient administration.
His policy platform promises both a Citizens’ Charter (CC) and RTI. CC is essentially a service-level agreement between the service giver and the citizen. The service giver promises the service will be provided in x time if all the requirements are met. If not, remedies are specified. The RTI is more general; the information requestor need not be a direct party, e.g., a citizen can request information on how permission was given to fill wetland, even she has no direct interest in the land or the transaction.
Both CC and RTI require proper maintenance of files or records, a function that has sadly deteriorated in many, if not most, government offices. But efficient service delivery cannot occur without proper maintenance of “files” in whatever form. The pressures that will be brought to bear on individual officials by the CC and RTI to deliver services on time and to produce documentation of prior decisions, respectively, will reinforce efforts to reengineer CMC work processes and make the organization clean and efficient.
CC and RTI are essential elements of the plans to improve service delivery by the CMC. RTI is good in and of itself. But it will also help reform and improve municipal government. Milinda Moragoda is committed to RTI for both reasons.
Is Milinda truly committed to RTI?
Milinda Moragoda ran one election campaign with RTI as a major plank in his platform, possibly the only one who ran ads on this subject. That was in 2010 and the party was the Sri Lanka National Congress, a constituent of the UPFA. He lost that election.
There is not much point in asking a person who was not in Parliament when the RTI bill was introduced as a private member’s bill about why he did not support it. He was not in a position to do so.
Prior to that, he had the Justice and Law Reform portfolio for a few months. During this time he attempted to enact the RTI law. After losing the election, he continued to speak publicly on the topic, in Sinhala and Tamil, both in print and on electronic media. If people thought he had gone quiet, it was perhaps because they do not engage with Sinhala and Tamil media. For example, a rerun of a Didulana Diyatha program addressing RTI was shown the week of September 13th.
He has been very clear about his absolute commitment to the RTI plank in his platform. His policy platform is no secret to the UPFA and the SLFP. It was presented to the President and launched with the participation and endorsement of the General Secretary of the UPFA and the Treasurer of the SLFP.
What should RTI proponents do?
Support Milinda Moragoda’s campaign.
But for whatever reason, if they do not want to do that, there is little reason to bash him for it. He is committing to implement it in one small corner of Sri Lanka. The battle for RTI in the rest of the country remains. His effort does not get in the way of anyone’s efforts in the larger space. There is room enough for multiple approaches.
Crafting a good piece of RTI legislation for the city level will require help. The draft developed while Milinda was Minister of Justice and Law Reforms will be our starting point. We’d be happy to adapt it for the city level in a participatory way, starting even before the election. Join the work.
RTI is a promise, at this stage. There is only one way to ensure promises are kept. Help him win, help him get RTI recognized and see.