What would a model Freedom of Information Act Look Like

From: S Moonesamy <sm+mu_at_elandsys.com>
Date: Fri, 11 Dec 2015 10:49:30 -0800


I attended a workshop about "What would a model Freedom of
Information Act Look Like". I took some quick notes.

The workshop started with a presentation by Ms Corinna Zarek about
what would a Freedom of Information Act look like. She gave a brief
overview of the components of a Freedom of Information law:

   - Request process, including deadlines
   - Appeals process
   - Exceptions to release
   - Government roles and responsibilities
   - Records management
   - Training
   - Reporting

As the participants went through the sessions to provide better
awareness of the above, we got a better view of the intricacies of
such a law and the difficulties which may be encountered in practice.

Ms Zarek explained the Freedom of Information process as follows:

   - Filing/receiving a request
   - Processing the requests, review for public v/s non-public
information and deadlines
   - Government response
   - Appeal and deadline
   - Disputes
   - Exceptions to release
     - personal information
     - national security
     - economic information
     - trade secrets and commercial interests
     - medical records and educational records
     - law enforcememnt information

The players were identified: Information Commissioner or Ombudsman,
Ministers, Information Offices and Civil Service, requesters, Civil
Society. On the government side, employees would need to learn the
law and their role in implementing it. At a minimum, they must learn
that their records may become public. Civil Society would have to
learn how to use the law. For reporting and oversight purposes,
ministries should report on progress and statistics. It was
suggested that an Information Commissioner could provide oversight
and for there to be annual audits.

The participants were then split in several groups to discussion
about what would be needed for in drafting a Freedom of Information
Act. There were discussions about who should lead the process, i.e.
which government ministry, and who should be involved. It was the
view of my group that the government should take the lead and that it
should seek input from stakeholders by inviting organisations such as
NGOs and the Bar Council to participate in the drafting of a
law. The following questions were covered:

   - Which ministry or office should administer or oversee a
FOIA? Should it live in an existing ministry or should it be a new
centralized office be created?
   - Who will have responsibility for overseeing FOIA in ministries?
   - Not all information created or maintained by government is
public information. What categories of information should be
considered non-public and excepted for release?
   How can we ensure any exceptions are not so broad as to cover
information that should be released?
  - If a requester disagrees with the government's decision, what
options shoudl exist for a recourse? Appeals? Seeking assistance
from an Ombudsman or Information Commissioner?
  - What type of reporting should ministries produce? What would
reports include? How often would they be published?
  - Should information released to a requester be automatically
released to the public?

The participants were give a copy of Freedom of Information Act
(United States) and the Right to Information Act (India) as models to
help them address the above questions. There were informative
comments from Mr Domingue on some of the legal aspects. The session
discussion was active with two officers from the Ministry of Civil
Service and Administrative Reform providing input.

After a break, I joined another group to discussion about the
implementation of a FOIA. As I was volunteered as spokesperson, I
gace a short presentation of the group's reply to the following questions:

  - What are the various roles involved and what duties might
correspond to each?

The group identified four roles, Facilitator, Implementator, Enforcer
and Monitoring and Evaluation. The duties of the facilitator would
be to train the personnel and create awareness. The facilitator
would also be in charge of the infrastructure. The Implementator
would handle the requests for information and the Enforcer would be a
third-party. It was suggested that the third-party may be an
Ombudsman or the Judiciary.

   - Will regulations, guidance or other best practices be
needed? What would they entail?

The group suggested guidelines to ensure implementation where the
procedures are defined. Regulations might be needed to set the fees
to be paid and to specify the electronic disclosure procedures. The
group also suggested adhering that international standards of
excellence should be followed.

  - What must be included in training for government employees? Who
should receive training?

It was the view of the group that there should be training which
targets top management and that there should be legal training for
officers processing the requests. It was suggested to ensure
awareness through the media.

  - What roles do requests and the general public play?

It would be up to the requester to research where to file the
information request and to follow up on the request once it has been
filed. The requester could be given some training on how to access
the information.

The group did not reach agreement on the question of whether a
justification is necessary when making a request.

After a break, the persons in each group were asked to put themselves
in the position of a requester, an Information officer and a
transport expert. The question was about a person seeking information
about road repairs. There was an entertaining performance from Ish,
acting as a requester, and Sandeep acting as an Information
Officer. The goal of this exercise was to see how difficult it
could be to use a FOI law.

Ish asked about the outcome of the workshop. The answer was that it
was left to the people in Mauritius to see what they would like to do
after the workshop. As there was about eight or more persons
interested in following up, it was suggested to have a forum where
they could continue the discussion and see how to translate it in
something useful.

Ish, Sandeep, Omdeep and I had an informal conversation with the
Public Affairs Officer of the embassy after the event and she
expressed interest in learning more about the Mauritius Internet Users.

S. Moonesamy
Received on Fri Dec 11 2015 - 18:51:22 PST

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