In my last post I wrote about the issue of public awareness, which Alasdair Roberts explains is one of the three main challenges facing India in its effort to implement the Right to Information Act (RTIA). Another challenge that Roberts names is bureaucratic indifference or hostility. If public awareness refers to citizen engagement and use of RTIA, bureaucratic hostility impacts enforcement of RTIA. Both have implications for the prospect of any legislation to actually come to life—by being used by people and enforced by public officials. Having examined the issue of public awareness, I now turn to public officials and the enforcement side.
So what’s with all the apathy and hostility among India’s public officials? According to Roberts, the state of affairs for officials tasked to enforce the RTIA is not rosy—and we are talking about factors beyond the usual suspects that make life difficult for public officials, such as the lack of resources, as in financial, physical and human. By law, Public Information Officers (PIOs), appointed by public authorities, are the ones who handle RTIA requests. Unfortunately, there is no incentive for one to covet this post. It is generally a low-level post garnering little respect. It’s also a tough job: the low status of the post means that PIOs find it difficult to get cooperation from the higher-ups to gather and release information, which also happens to be their main role. To top it off, PIOs are personally fined for non-compliance according to one of RTIA’s provisions (though this provision is seldom applied—which also creates credibility issues in the eyes of the public, but that is another story). It is not surprising that turnover among PIOs is high, in turn placing added burden on the state for having to run more training sessions for new staff. Not that these unpleasant factors are grounds for excuse, but they do shed light on the negative attitudes that public officials seem to harbor about their role and about the RTIA itself. This negativity might also explain the rather baffling cases of some PIOs resisting the very idea of RTIA training.
But how might bureaucratic indifference and hostility be tackled? Roberts discusses the importance of strong leadership commitment to RTIA implementation, and this is a point many would agree on. Perhaps as equally important is the understanding by public officials of their role in society, to take pride in their responsibility as the ones entrusted to enforce the historic and ambitious RTIA. While reading all the negative factors that might impact PIOs’ attitude towards work, I couldn’t help but to remember a few comments by participants who attended the November 2008 CommGAP-UNODC learning event. The topic under discussion was the challenge of creating a culture of probity and accountability within state authorities, and the solutions proposed that particularly struck me were the following:
- Precondition: make public officials feel secure about their job and satisfied by the way they are treated for what they do (reasonable salaries; respect for their position in society, etc.)
- Cultivating a culture of probity and accountability within public authorities depends on the culture of the officials and staff themselves; changes could be made if such officers were educated, cultured and really have the desire to do that for the benefit of all
The suggested solutions highlight both the financial incentives as well as the psychological and social factors that can engender among public officials a sense of pride in their work, and more importantly, in their greater role in society. RTIA is just another piece of lifeless legislation unless it is exercised. Getting citizens to use the legislation can certainly yank it off of life support and inject it with vitality. Even more effective would be if the ownership of RTIA came from the public as well as the government, with public officials embracing it, respecting it, taking pride in it—and bringing it fully to life.
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