Social accountability and freedom of information

Eagle Eyes

Access to information is critical for social accountability and governance at large. Most crucial therefore of the tools that promote social accountability is the freedom of information bill which continues to be pending in Congress. For this reason, I devote the fifth column of my social accountability series on this matter.

While this has been announced as a priority of President Benigno Aquino III almost from his inauguration, it is almost disheartening to note that more than a year has passed since his election to the Presidency without significant progress in getting the bill through Congress, and that he had been virtually silent on the matter in his last State-of-the-Nation Address (although he subsequently addressed the issue in media). To date, the matter is still under “careful study”, which has saddened if not angered government reform activists.

Disappointed as I am about developments, I am not inclined at the moment to either lay blame on him or anyone else for the bill’s stalled status, or to consider this a betrayal of the public trust by people involved. Even well-meaning policies like FOI must pass through the formal legislative process in order to properly become law, and compete with other demands on the government’s agenda. Also, a policy reform as transformative as FOI will naturally encounter much inertia from affected officials, bureaucracies, and interests. The reality is that sustaining far-reaching policies will require much political capital. I am quite familiar with this, in experiences ranging from protecting vulnerable forests while in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to the painstaking negotiations for peace in Mindanao (as both an observer-consultant and once as part of the government negotiating panel). Governance is a very costly business, which demands the utmost care from its practitioners.

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