Why So Secretive? EC, CVC, Ministries Fail Info Transparency Test
A majority of India’s public authorities have failed an information transparency audit of their websites. Be it ministries, universities, banks or corporations, 35% of all the government bodies audited got an ‘E’ grade, the lowest ranking possible. An ‘A’ grade is over 90%, while the ‘E’ grade of below 60% means failure.
The audit, commissioned by the Central Information Commission, relates to the proactive disclosure of information by public authorities as mandated under section 4 of the RTI Act.
However, the report has revealed rampant non-compliance in disclosing basic information about their functioning. What this means is that our authorities are not disclosing the information that they should be putting out in public.
But why so? What are they hiding?
The audit report lists information regarding the transfer of officers, how authorities allocate and utilise their funds, foreign trips by officials, and even minutes of meetings.
Among the worst offenders are bodies like the Central Vigilance Commission, the Election Commission, a host of ministries, as well as financial institutions like UCO Bank and Punjab National Bank.
The report titled, ‘ Transparency Audit of Disclosures u/s 4 of the Right to Information Act by the Public Authorities’ was undertaken by AN Tiwari, former chief information commissioner, and MM Ansari, former information commissioner. Not just the findings of the report, but even the audit process itself illustrates the current state of information disclosure by authorities.
“We reached out to 2,092 public authorities and only 830 responded to our proforma. This, despite four reminders. And even among the responses we got, a lot of information was found to be sketchy and exaggerated.”MM Ansari, co-author of the audit report told The Quint
No Info on Transfers or Foreign Tours
Ansari and Tiwari detail ‘vital information’ that they have found to be missing from the authorities’ websites. Some of the most important ones include:
- Policies on transfer and posting of senior officers deployed at important and sensitive places
- Decision-making process
- Minutes of meetings of various committees and boards
- RTI applications and appeals received and their responses
- Details of domestic and foreign visits undertaken by the senior officials
- Sources and methods of funding political parties or identification of donors
“This report reveals the utter lack of commitment and seriousness of our public authorities and the government towards information transparency,” said Anjali Bharadwaj, an RTI activist and founding member of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, an NGO promoting transparency, told The Quint.
Other types of information include details of the grievance redressal mechanisms, consultation with the public on the proposed major policy decisions, criteria/guidelines for allocation and utilisation of CSR funds by the Public Sector Enterprises, and discretionary and non-discretionary Grants.
“One of the responses we got during our audit was that their websites were not structured to carry all the necessary information. Following our proforma and report, many have said that they will undertake a redesigning of their websites,” said Ansari.
Why the Findings Matter
The publication of the report is itself wrapped in irony. Anjali Bharadwaj, an RTI activist, told The Quint:
“The irony lies in the fact that we had filed an RTI to access this report but were denied a copy of it. The justification provided for the denial was that the report was too voluminous. However, eventually the CIC agreed to make it public.”Anjali Bharadwaj, RTI Activist
The 73-page report has ranked the 838 audited public authorities on a scale of A to E. Those whose have scored between 90-100% were awarded an ‘A’ grade while those who got below 60 percent got an ‘E’, the lowest grade. While 292 (35%) fell in the ‘E’ category, only 158 (19%) got an A.
So who are the ones who failed the audit with an ‘E’ grade ?
Among the notable names are the Central Vigilance Commission, Secretariat of the Election Commission of India, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Ministry of Power, Ministry of Mines, Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of AAYUSH.
“Without transparency, there cannot be good governance and this commitment has to start at the top levels of governance,” said Ansari.
An interesting insight from the report is that when it comes to ‘information disclosed under own initiative’, 515 of the 838 respondents (61%) scored an E. Similarly, 60% got an E in the ‘information as may be prescribed’ parameter.
The scoring was done on the basis of information disclosed under six parameters:
- Organisation and Functions
- Budget and Programme
- Publicity and Public Interface
- Information as may be Prescribed
- Information disclosed on own initiative
What About the Ones that Scored an ‘A’?
Nineteen percent of the audited bodies did get an ‘A’. Does this mean that they have gone out of their way to be transparent ?
No, not really.
Section 4 of the RTI Act pertains to ‘Obligations of public authorities’ and mandates the suo moto disclosure of specific categories of information for public authorities.
Section 4(1)(b) specifies 17 categories of information for which a public authority is obliged to put out information ‘duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act’ .
“It is important to remember that the audit only looks at information put out on the websites,” said Bharadwaj. “Section 4 talks about putting out information in an accessible way and websites today are the most accessible form. However, there are many other forms of putting out information and most have fared poorly on those fronts as well,” she added.
Some Soul Searching for CIC?
The Central Information Commission itself has been grappling with an acute shortage of information commissioners. While the CIC is supposed to have a total 11 commissioners – one chief information commissioner and ten information commissioners – it currently has seven vacancies, including that of the chief information commissioner.
“The Information Commission has the power to summon heads of departments of public authorities. This is their own report and if they are genuinely serious about the report then they should follow up with strict action,” said Bharadwaj.