ANALYSIS OF THE SURVEY ON THE APPLICATION OF THE LAW ON FREE ACCESS TO PUBLIC INFORMATION IN THE FIRST HALF OF 2020
The Agency for the Protection of the Right to Free Access to Public Information prepared a short survey at the end of June to collect original and reliable data on the implementation of the Law on Free Access to Public Information from the beginning of 2020, i.e. from the start of working of the Agency on June 30, 2020. The questionnaire was distributed electronically to the officials of a focus group consisting of 194 holders of public information, selected at random.
There were a total of 13 questions on the questionnaire. Тwo of them were broad in scope and concerned background information on the information or the institution’s holder, while the rest involved verifying the contact information of those responsible for mediating the public information.
- By the deadline of July 5, when the completed questionnaires were to be delivered to the Agency’s official email, 104 holders, or 53.6% of the subjects who were asked to share their experience from the application of the Law in the first half of 2020, had submitted their responses. Upon returning to regular work responsibilities, the officials of 3 holders who had been granted leave of absence due to Government-mandated actions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic notified the Agency on the submission of the completed questionnaire.
- The officials of 102 institutions covered by the research, or even 98.07% of the institutions that submitted a completed questionnaire, declared that they were familiar with the provisions of the Law on Free Access to Public Information of 2019, while two of them pointed out that they were partially familiar.
- A high 87.5% of respondents or officials from 91 institutions answered affirmatively to the question, “Are you familiar with the Guidelines for the implementation of the Law on Free Access to Public Information?” while the representatives of 13 institutions or 12.5% answered that they are not familiar with the content of this document.
- Regarding the number of submitted/received requests, officials presented a total number of 1093 requests based on the Law on Free Access to Public Information.
- Asked about the number of answered questions, the officials presented data on a total of 961 positively answered requests, which represents 87.9% of the total number of received requests. In addition, it is explained that 8 of the requests have been partially answered, for four requests the procedure is ongoing, while the other four requests, according to the provisions of the Law, were forwarded to the holders who possess the requested information.
- Regarding the number of unanswered requests, respondents inform about a total of 21 unanswered requests. The questionnaires also contain data, according to which the legal deadline for responding to two requests has not yet expired, and the reason for one unanswered request is the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The respondents answered that in accordance with the legal provisions, they rejected a total of five requests, of which two were partially answered.
- The answered questionnaires contain data on 23 rejected requests, while the requesters received a partial response to two of them.
- In response to the query, “Number of requests answered after the expiration of the legal term and reasons for the same,” the respondents reveal that 34 requests were not responded to in a timely manner, i.e., within the legal framework. The administration’s silence is often explained by the fact that employees with the requested information were either working from home or were otherwise exempted from coming to the office as part of government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
- Also, a number of the requests had to be resubmitted after being found to be in violation of the Law on Free Access to Public Information. Some applicants had to wait longer than expected to receive responses due to technical issues, and some authorities didn’t respond to requests at all because of delays and inconsistencies in data delivery from specific industries.
- Officials report that after 30 requests from their side, Decisions were made to deny access. In one case, a Decision was drawn up for partial access, while a Decision of the Agency annulled one adopted Decision for the Protection of the Right to Free Access to Public Information.
- The officials conducted the harmfulness test while responding to 23 requests for access to public information.
- To the question: “Does your institution need training for the application of the Law on Free Access to Public Information” the officials of 81 institutions answered “yes”, while the persons who mediate the information they created or have at their disposal are 19 holders, declared that they did not need training. Two officials answered with “maybe”, i.e., it could use training, but it is not necessary. Finally, according to one official, there was a need for training, but for the management staff in the institutions. In one instance, the official claimed to have participated in a Pravomatica-led training.
OBSERVATIONS, NOTES, RECOMMENDATIONS
- Taking into account the number of surveyed officials among the holders of information and the short period of application of the Law, the received survey questionnaires only partially give a picture of the implementation of LFAPI in the first half of 2020. That leaves room for serious consideration is the fact that among the holders who did not submit the requested data are a significant number of state institutions, but also local self-government units (which were randomly selected in the focus group), whose work in the past years it was the subject of interest of citizens, non-governmental organizations, investigative journalists and the like. It is certain that with the data on the implementation of the Law among these holders, the main findings of the research might have been very different from the aspect of the real picture of the application of LFAPI, and above all, for detecting the future steps of the Agency.
- The results obtained from the survey show that the Agency should continue to proclaim and explain its mission and vision and the meaning of LFAPI, especially among the managers of state institutions and local self-government units, who, despite the delegated competencies to resolve the officials, have the last word. By monitoring the work of these authorities and pointing out their shortcomings, one could further contribute to their greater openness and transparency and to the establishment of an accountable public sector.
- This survey questionnaire also shows that even in these six months since the implementation of the new legal solution, the main reason for not getting access to information is the “silence of the administration” with 34 answered requests, i.e. the actions of the holders after the expiration of the legally established deadline, is still the main reason for not getting access to information. Regardless of the incomplete statistical picture, the displayed number of 34 requests that were faced with “silence of the administration” is a sufficient indicator that the Agency, in the coming period, should focus on the work of openness and transparency among individual officials, i.e. holders.
- On all occasions and mutual contacts, but above all during training, the employees of the Agency should explain to the officials who do not know their obligations the changes contained in the LFAPI with emphasis first of all on the shorter deadlines for acting on the requests, that in case of a positive response to the request or if the request is partially or completely rejected, it will bring a solution, then about the advantages of proactive transparency, but also to inform them about the violation provisions provided for in the Law.
- Instead of submitting a single, streamlined questionnaire from each institution where more than one official person has been designated to act on requests and implement the LFAPI, those institutions submitted as many questionnaires as there are authorized persons to mediate information of a public nature. Such (in)coordination between officials and departments is an internal matter of each institution. However, it cannot be used as an excuse for the late processing of requests within the legally mandated timeframes.