Lack of Transparency and Freedom of Information in Pakistan: An analysis of government’s functioning and realistic policy options for reform
It has been argued that the poor state of governance in Pakistan is significantly because of lack of transparency and access to information in public affairs, which restricts the ability of citizens, civil society groups and public representatives to effectively monitor the performance of public institutions. This lack of transparency leads to arbitrary and non-participatory decision-making, inefficient project execution and rampant financial corruption in public bodies. Lack of transparency and access to information also contributes to sustaining excessive bureaucratic controls and non-functioning of democratic institutions. Over the years, this non-transparent, non-participatory and exclusive system of governance has become a subject of increasing criticism, as it is perceived as completely incapable of responding to the needs and aspirations of citizens.
In view of growing criticism of the culture of secrecy and rampant corruption, the government of Pakistan has recently enacted certain laws with the aim of promoting transparency and access to information in public institutions. For instance, the Local Government (LG) Ordinance 2001 makes significant provisions for greater transparency and public participation in the functioning of union, tehsil and district authorities. Among others, these include (a) meetings of Zila and Tehsil Councils shall be open to public, (b) public objections will be invited before assigning or contracting out any of local government functions to any public-private, public or private organization, and (c) monthly and annual account statements shall be posted at conspicuous places for public information, and (d) every citizen shall have the right to information about any office of the district, tehsil and union administration. Furthermore, in October 2002, the President of Pakistan promulgated the Freedom of Information Ordinance, which recognizes citizens’ right to information and records held by federal public bodies, although subjective to a long list of exemptions.
However, the above mentioned initiatives have not proven very effective in terms of promoting transparency and access to information. It seems that it is largely because of twofold reasons. First of all, the policy initiatives have not been based on any scientific research into the functioning of public departments. In fact, they were hurriedly planned and executed, without allowing much time for consideration and consultations – allegedly to achieve political mileage than to truly promote transparency and empower citizens by ensuring their access to information and records held by public bodies. Secondly, these policy initiatives have excluded civil society groups from the designing process, and hence do not provide effective framework wherein they could engage with public departments and make use of enabling provisions in the new laws.
Against the above background, it is important to carry out scientific research into the causes and mechanisms of prevailing culture of secrecy at various tiers of governance in Pakistan and, on the basis of it, make sound and realistic policy recommendations for reform. On the one hand, such a policy research would benefit the government, or the elements in government, which are serious about promoting transparency and good governance. On the other hand, it would serve as a good basis for public advocacy as well as lobbying by the non-governmental organizations. The proposed research will focus only on the federal level of governance in Pakistan, including the executive, judicial and legislative branches.
2. Project Objectives
2.1. To carry out research into the bureaucratic functioning, especially the existing mechanisms of secrecy as well as information disclosure, and identify the problems and issues that need to be addressed;
2.2. To survey and analyze the nature and intensity of problems which citizens and citizens’ groups confront due to non-transparency and secretive system of governance; and
2.3. To come up with realistic policy recommendations and share them with all the relevant stakeholders including the government, legislators, judges and civil society groups.
3. Methodology and Procedures
In order to understand the bureaucratic functioning in relation to transparency or information disclosure, 2 key departments of the federal government will be selected and studied in comparative terms. It is expected that this would bring out the legal lacunae that cut across the departments, as well as the issues, which may be specific to each selected department. Such a selection would be based on a carefully prepared criterion (to be developed later), that would include considerations like diverse representation, size or public funds used, and the perceived importance of the department for general public. Such a selection is necessary, as it would be otherwise difficult to study all the federal departments.
Secondly, the proposed project would attempt to document relevant developments and initiatives since 1990, including the instances of secret bureaucratic functioning and their adverse results. This should provide insights into the attitudes as well as trends prevalent in the departments, and to identify arenas and kinds of actions, which have the potential of relatively greater success.
Thirdly, the research into the bureaucratic functioning (i.e. supply-side) would be further complemented by insights gained from the civil society sector (i.e. demand-side). This would be done by using a range of methods including a limited survey, interview methods and review of their own researches and work. This would ensure the incorporation of civil society perspectives, and help improve the quality and relevance of policy recommendations.
Fourthly, the policy recommendations would be based on the research into the bureaucratic functioning as well as the insights developed through surveys and interviews in the civil society sector. Most importantly, the international best practices, especially the ones from the developing countries, would be studied and analyzed for their relevance and incorporation in the policy recommendations.
Lastly, the research and policy recommendation produced under the proposed project would be shared with the government, legislators, judges and non-governmental organizations. This would be done through personal audiences with key officials, formal briefings, circulation through email groups, website and formal launching of the report. In this context, it should be possible to explore cost-effective methods, especially by forging partnerships with or seeking support from non-governmental organizations and willing government departments.
4. Use of Research and Policy Recommendations
It is expected that the proposed research will be used by:
· The government, or its departments, to better understand the issues and problems, and come up with appropriate legal or policy actions to redress them;
· The legislators, who could make use of the research to better perform their legislative or executive oversight functions;
· The judges, who may like to use the research for judicial initiatives, which they occasionally take in the spirit of judicial activism and public interest;
· The civil society groups, which could make it a basis for their public advocacy and lobbying with the government.
It must be pointed out that no such research has ever been carried out in Pakistan in the past. Therefore, it would be ground-breaking and highly beneficial in a context when good governance, transparency and accountability have become widely-discussed issues.