PCOO echoes call for Congress to pass FOI law

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION. National Statistician Dr. Lisa Grace Bersales (2nd from right) shares FOI best practices in the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) during the #FOIKnowMore event of the PCOO on June 15, 2017. Michael Bueza/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) on Thursday, June 15, echoed the call for Congress to pass a Freedom of Information (FOI) Law.

In a conference on the implementation of the FOI program on Thursday, the PCOO urged Filipinos, the media, and civil society "to ensure that the FOI bill [would] be enacted."

Currently, the FOI program under Executive Order No. 2 – signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2016 and launched 4 months later, in November – covers the executive branch only.

"We call on the House of Representatives and the Senate to unite and pass the FOI as a law to be adhered to by all agencies in the 3 branches of government, constitutional commissions and bodies," said PCOO undersecretary Noel Gorge Puyat.

ACT Teachers party list representative Antonio Tinio, who spoke in Thursday’s conference, said he is "quite positive and optimistic" that the FOI bill will pass. Tinio is the former head and current senior vice chairperson of the House public information committee.

Compared to the fate of FOI bills in previous Congresses, Tinio said, "This time, it will be different because the most important factor here is that Malacañang – not just in words, but in action – is implementing FOI policies."

As of this posting, Senate Bill 1208, known as the People’s Freedom of Information Act of 2016, is scheduled for 2nd reading.

Tinio, meanwhile, said the House version of the FOI bill is currently with the committee on appropriations.

PCOO assistant secretary Kristian Ablan said that the new House committee chair, Bagong Henerasyon party list representative Bernadette Herrera-Dy, "committed to us that she will support the passage of the FOI bill."

The Right to Know, Right Now! coalition, along with Ablan, also pushed for the passage of the FOI Law in March, after it presented a report on the implementation of EO No. 2. (READ: Gov’t officials, groups urge passage of FOI law)

‘Doing well’

Ablan said the FOI in the executive branch has been "really doing well" over 6 months since it was implemented. (READ: How serious is the Duterte administration about FOI?)

"All [executive] departments are compliant with the FOI manual, and majority of other agencies are compliant as well," said Ablan.

The PCOO reported on Thursday that 108 agencies have already enrolled in the electronic FOI (eFOI) portal at foi.gov.ph.

This list is composed of 16 Cabinet departments, 74 national government agencies (NGA), and 18 government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCC).

The following departments are scheduled to be part of the eFOI portal before November 2017, said the PCOO:

  • Department of Education (DepEd)
  • Department of National Defense (DND)
  • Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)
  • Department of Tourism (DOT)

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) leads the list of most requested agencies in the eFOI website.

Top 5 requested agencies in eFOI portal:
PSA (169), DOH (108), DBM (99), DOTr (96), PCOO (68) #FOIKnowMore pic.twitter.com/8BuRd05KaN

— Michael Bueza (@mikebueza) June 15, 2017

In terms of the status of requests in the eFOI portal, as of June 15, the PCOO reported that 49.42% of requests have been granted, while 50.58% have been denied.

"When we deny a request, it doesn’t mean it’s because it’s in the exemptions. A lot of the times, it’s denied because the information [requested] is not in the possession of the agency," explained Ablan. "Sometimes also, they ask for information that are not within the executive branch."

Rate of successful and denied requests in eFOI portal (Mar 2017 vs Jun 2017) #FOIKnowMore pic.twitter.com/VihsGN4Bsk

— Michael Bueza (@mikebueza) June 15, 2017

FOI manuals

The PCOO also reported that all 22 departments under the executive branch have submitted FOI manuals.

A total of 129 NGAs, 40 GOCCs, and 4 state colleges and universities (SUC) have likewise complied with submitting FOI manuals as of June 15.

However, these figures translate to 68% of the executive departments plus NGAs, 25.6% of all GOCCs, and only 3.54% of all SUCs.

Ablan explained that some GOCC boards are not yet complete, leaving draft FOI manuals still unapproved. As for some SUCs, "they are carefully reviewing the disclosure of information that have intellectual property."

Interestingly, despite not being covered by EO No. 2, the Office of the Ombudsman (a constitutional office), the Dingras Water District in Ilocos Norte, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District in Laguna have submitted FOI manuals, reported the PCOO. Ablan added that some local governments have even passed FOI ordinances.

"By the end of 2017, we hope to have all NGAs under the executive branch to be on board with the FOI program," said Puyat.

"We wish to let the executive branch serve as an example to other branches of government in terms of accountability and transparency," he added.

"By 2018, we envision that all government agencies encompassing all branches [of government] are already on board the eFOI portal," said Puyat.

Challenges

The PCOO on Thursday also noted the challenges in the implementation of the FOI program.

For instance, some offices have yet to submit the required FOI registry (or a list of received FOI requests) and agency information inventory (or the master list of an agency’s available data and information).

FOI stakeholders also said there are "too many exemptions" under Executive Order No. 2, and that the agencies are served light penalties for non-compliance.

Ablan: Challenges in FOI implementation include: compliance of agencies, light penalties, too many exemptions. #FOIKnowMore pic.twitter.com/miy2sKe2Wk

— Michael Bueza (@mikebueza) June 15, 2017

Some agencies also charge fees for FOI requests. The fees range from P0.75 per page (imposed, for instance, by the Department of Information and Communications Technology or DICT) to P200 per document (imposed by the Laguna Lake Development Authority or LLDA).

On the other hand, agencies like the Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC) release requested documents for free. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) imposes no fee for the first 50 pages, then P3 for each exceeding page.

Ablan clarified that under EO No. 2, no fee shall be imposed for accepting requests for access to information. However, agencies may charge a reasonable fee to reimburse costs, such as for photocopying.

Despite all these, Ablan assured Filipinos they "can take comfort that at any time, at any place, they can ask for information from any government office, and that office will respond."

This, added Ablan, "adds to the restoration of faith and trust in government."

Also during the conference, resource persons from government and international partners joined panel discussions to tackle best practices in implementing FOI programs, data privacy and the role of information management, and tracking government’s programs that promote transparency and citizen engagement. – Rappler.com

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