PCOO to review FOI exception list for 2018

MANILA, Philippines – A year after the Freedom of Information (FOI) Executive Order (EO) was first implemented, the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) said they will be reviewing the exception list to better serve the public in 2018.

At the FOI Summit on Tuesday, December 5, Communications Undersecretary Marvin Gatpayat said that the PCOO identified priority areas that need to be addressed the coming year – on top of the list is the reevaluation of the 9 exceptions

According to EO No. 2, requests are denied should it fall under the following categories:

Gatpayat added that the PCOO will also address the issues between data protection and access to information, intensify stakeholder engagement, and improve the eFOI portal. (READ: How serious is the Duterte administration about FOI?)

The FOI team will also look into updating the Performance-Based Bonus eligibility for performing agencies and improve the information and records management system of the government.

As the communications office envisions a localized version of the FOI program, Gatpayat said they will train more agencies as part of their capacity building initiatives.

FOI's first year

On July 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the landmark EO No. 2 which allows the public to request for documents and records under the executive branch. It took effect November 25 last year, alongside the launch of its online portal.

During its first months, PCOO received complaints against some agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) for not responding to requests. Meanwhile, others lauded agencies such as the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) for effectively using the portal.

Issues on the program remain a year after. Communications Assistant Secretary Kris Ablan acknowledged that there are still challenges in pushing agencies to respond immediately to requests or in providing data that are in open format.

Government agencies are required by the EO to respond within 15 days. Ablan said that there are some government offices that wait for the deadline to end before replying to a request.

"There's an unintended consequence in putting a period in responding... [Action officers] have the habit to maximize. You don't have to consume all 15 working days before responding," he said.

On the demand side, Ablan noted that some requests were too complex or too taxing to be provided within the given deadline. He suggested that policymakers study the possibility of charging fees to requests that require decades-worth of data, for example.

Lilia Guillermo, Department of Budget and Management Undersecretary and Chief Information Officer, echoed the idea and said that there are costs in storing data.

"We have limited resources in government. Government keeps data but it's already extensive if they have 10 years worth of data. Anything before that is archived. If your data is archived, it will take some time to retrieve it and give it you," she said.

Ablan added that the PCOO is planning to issue a memorandum on the number of requests a citizen may file. He shared that at one point, 10% of all the requests lodged in the portal came from a single person.

"We’re very happy that people are asking. But we have to strike a balance somewhere," he said.

Best practices 

On Monday, December 4, the PCOO recognized the best performing department and government agency in FOI implementation.

DBM emerged as the FOI Champion Department for its outstanding commitment in ensuring transparency in public service. Meanwhile, PSA received the same recognition under the Government Agency category.

Other FOI awardees were the National Housing Authority for the Government Owned and Controlled Corporations category and University of the Philippines for the State Universities and Colleges category.

CHAMPION. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno received the award for being the FOI Champion Department on December 4, 2017. Photo from DBM

CHAMPION. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno received the award for being the FOI Champion Department on December 4, 2017.

Photo from DBM

Guillermo shared that the document management system of the DBM is aligned with the FOI – this helped them to manage the volume of request they are receiving. In the years to come, the budget department is planning to integrate their system with the FOI so processing requests is easier.

Meanwhile, PSA Assistant National Statistician Edwin Aragon emphasized the need to map all available data within an agency as this will help decide whether a request can be granted or not.

The PCOO reported that among the 217 participating agencies, PSA received the most requests at 420. Aragon shared that the key to effectively responding to requests is by checking the portal regularly and by replying as soon as a request is received.

PSA is followed by the Department of Health with 220, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) with 173, the DBM with 153, and the PCOO with 101 requests.

Freedom of information

The signing of the EO is a critical milestone for advocates. The fight started when the first bill was filed in 1992 at the House of Representatives.

Twenty-four years later, the Philippines is finally implementing a measure towards full public disclosure.

But limitations remain as it is only an EO, and covers only the executive branch. Advocates have been pushing for the passage of a law, seeing the EO as a window of opportunity to finally urge Congress to pass the measure. (READ: PCOO echoes call for Congress to pass FOI law)– Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.