Technology for transparency

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

A NEWS item in this paper datelined Lahore informed us last week that the Punjab government will be allowing online access to all its laws, rules and regulations in two months.

This should be welcomed as one of the most positive moves to be considered by any government in the country — assuming this actually happens. In a state which claims to be democratic, transparency of governance is the foremost requirement if citizens are to be part of the process of governing themselves.

Needless to say, this has been one of the weakest areas of our national life. Since Pakistan has been a democracy only intermittently, it has never been considered necessary to take people into confidence about all the policies and decisions of the government even though they have a direct and long-term bearing on the lives of Pakistan`s citizens.

As we moved towards a democratic dispensation, public demand for information and transparency escalated. The realisation has dawned on people that information and knowledge brings with them empowerment. Hence the pressure for a law recognising the right to information, which we got in the form of an ordinance handed down to us by a military dictator in 2002.

But it never helped. The beneficiaries of this law — the people — had no way of having it enforced. In other words there was no way for a citizen who asked for some information to force the concerned department to provide it. Small wonder it is an endless wait for applicants seeking information on some matter. They never get it.

In this situation, there have been only two avenues open to a person seeking information — admittedly not an enviable situation. Most people are happy remaining in the state of bliss that ignorance brings with it. Others — the more curious ones — are happy turning to the first avenue. They pick up whatever the media offers them — unfortunately a major chunk of it being unauthentic and incomplete.

I should add that it is not just the electronic media that has to shoulder the blame. Newspapers, cellphone text messages, emails and radio are equally gung-ho about the information dished out with great abandon.

The second avenue is the Internet. On this count too one cannot vouch for the authenticity of the information provided. But if it is an official website then one accepts it as such from the source that has posted it. At least one cannot push the blame onto irresponsible journalists or others who don`t check their facts before they forward a message they receive.

This is why the Punjab government must be commended for this step. One can understand the chief secretary`s decision to give two months to various departments to verify the text of the matter being put up. He is absolutely right in saying that the laws that have been uploaded on the website that has yet to be made operational will be quoted for settling legal disputes and if there are any errors it could lead to legal complications.

One will however have to wait with trepidation for June. Why this concern? The news item reporting this move also stated that some secretaries objected to the idea saying this could expose the government`s will to enforce certain laws. The chief secretary overruled the objection reportedly saying there was “no need to hide a law already enacted by the provincial government”. It appears that Chief Secretary Nasir Mahmood Khosa is a rare bureaucrat who has nothing to hide. The number of skeletons various government departments have to hide in their cupboards could fill all the graveyards in Pakistan.

Why can`t the other provincial governments follow suit? True the federal ministries do have websites that carry the text of laws and policies enacted by them. But not all of them are always available. Besides the sub-laws —the rules and regulations framed under a law — are not always there and it leaves people in the dark.

It is also important that the drafts of bills and policies in the making should be made available on websites. In this way citizens can be involved in the policymaking process by sending in their views and suggestions on the drafts of laws before they are enacted. This feedback, especially from experts, would be useful if it comes before the law/policy is finalised so that recommendations can be taken into account.

Take the case of the proposed Library Act 2010. On March 10 this paper reported that the Senate`s Standing Committee on Education had approved this bill and it was to be put up in both houses of parliament. Since then I have been trying to get hold of this document but it has proved to be an impossible task. Had a website of the nature now being considered by Punjab been operating at the federal level, the details of such a law should have been easily available on the website as soon as the committee had adopted it.

It seems it will be made public after the Senate and the National Assembly have discussed and adopted it. Should not the Pakistan Library Association, which helped draft the bill, be taken into confidence at every stage? This calls for transparency which is fundamental to a democratic government that encourages a participatory process.

With all the technology available for communication in Pakistan, one cannot now say that the government is constrained by lack of facilities. If it fails to make information available to the people it is by design and not default. Why should there be anything to hide? Only those governments are wary about letting people know about the nitty-gritty of policymaking and legislation that fear exposure.

That is why Keith Ashdown, the vice-president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, calls transparency a “disinfectant” that could change the discourse drastically by disclosing everything to the people. He adds, thus alone would “the checks and balances” be instituted that would ensure that the money is well spent.