Citizens are hungry for information | Right to know day

Citizens regularly visit government institutions to seek for information: more than half have been to a public health facility (75%), a public school (69%), and village/street offices (54%) to request information. And citizens express the desire to have more information from government on public services spending (47%), jobs in government (14%) and money sent to districts (7%). Less than 1 out of 10 Ugandans (7%) say they do not want any information from government.

Citizens also believe strongly in their right to access government information. Eight out of ten say information held by public authorities is a public resource (77%) and that citizens should be able to access information from government (78%).

These finds have been curated and shared by Twaweza to mark International Right to Know Day in a short brief titled Access to Information: unblocking the flow, fulfilling the potential. The data are drawn from a number of sources including Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi, omnibus national surveys commissioned by Twaweza, a desk review of literature on the subject and a scoping study conducted by the ICT Policy Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA). 

Despite strong support and desire to access government information, citizens think that this information is hard to get. Eight out of ten (or more) citizens say it would be difficult or impossible to get information from government on the development budget (90%), agricultural extension services (87%), school exam performance rankings (85%). However, think information on construction plans is easier to come by 47% say it would be difficult or impossible to do so. The main reasons given for these challenges are not knowing where to look for this information (45%) and long travel distances to get it (32%).

And citizens’ experiences resonate with institutions or professionals who seek information. The website (76%) and the Hub for Investigative Media (62%) both show that the majority of requests in between 2013 and 2015 are marked as pending (not yet responded to). One out of five requests (21%) on AskYourGov was successful, and one out of eight (12%) on HIM. CIPESA (2016) found that government institutions seemed to use different tactics to avoid fulfilment of access to information requests including providing incomplete or outdated data, treating requesters with suspicion or hostility, and delaying or dismissing requests for no reason.

When it comes to channels of communication, citizens express clear preferences. If they are seeking information directly from government, citizens will either visit the relevant office physically (100%) or use the phone (71%). Other means of communication including the internet are used by less than 1 out of 10 Ugandans. But when it comes to their main source of information, citizens unequivocally chose radio (75%) as their preferred means to receive information from government with community meetings (32%) a distant second.

So citizens want government information, they are already seeking it in some cases. They also think in general that information from government is hard to access even though it is their right to do so. What can government do to help remove these blockages to information. The first responses are practical: using the channels that citizens choose, making information proactively available and accessible, promoting its availability rather than waiting for citizens to request it and training all government personnel on the access to information law.

Other obstacles, as identified by Twaweza’s review of the literature are more complex. On the side of citizens,’ there are strong tendencies towards relying on word of mouth as a source rather than directly seeking the relevant information, there is also a fear of and deference to authority. Citizens’ may also not be motivated to seek government information in the face of more pressing concerns around life necessities.  But the cost of filing a request and low access to the internet may also place practical constraints in their way.

On the government side, there are a number of laws that run counter to the spirit of the access to information law including the Evidence Act, the Official Secrets Act and some parts of the Penal Code. In addition, there seems to be a general attitude of secrecy and the fear of releasing ‘the wrong thing’. And finally general restrictions on some political rights and concentrated ownership of media outlets all play a role in restricting citizens’ access to information.

Read more: access to information



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