The Media Institute of Southern Africa conducts an annual exercise to review access to information from different government ministries and agencies. The latest report, Government Secrecy in an Information Age, 2014, came out a few days ago.
Within each country, eight government institutions are tested, in two ways. First, researchers look for ten different types of information on each institution’s website – the Website Review. For each bit of information that is found, two points are scored. Or one point if it is partially available. Second, they send a letter to the institution, followed up with phone calls and physical visits, requesting answers to a set of questions, and see what response they get – the Written Request for Information. The responses are then scored against ten different criteria, two points available for each.
Each institution’s score is added up, to a maximum of 40 points (20 for the website, 20 for the request for information). Those with the best and worst scores are then awarded a “Golden Key” and a “Golden Padlock” respectively.
So what does it tell us?
In 2014, the “Golden Key” went to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). As someone who accesses information from NBS fairly regularly, I think this is well deserved. They have a useful website with a lot of data available. But what won them this award was something much simpler: NBS was the only institution that gave any response to the written request for information. Look at the sea of red in the bottom chart.
Look also at the green row at the top of that sea of red. Every single institution tested in Tanzania in 2013 or 2014 was judged to have “a designated official” whose job it is to respond to requests for information. How is it then, that only 1 out of 8 requests in 2014 (and only 3 out of 8 in 2013) received any response? What did these “designated officials” do with the information requests?
Scores for the website reviews were generally more positive. This should be treated with some caution, however, as the assessment was pretty quick and shallow. It allocates the same number of points, for example, to posting contact details of the institution, which nobody internally could object to and should take just five minutes, as to publishing “policies, reports and programmes”, which could be a lot more complicated. Further, there’s no real assessment of the accuracy or completeness of the information provided. A small table with top-line budget information would get the full two points, as would one minor report posted online, even if 30 more important reports were not available.
Finally, though I have my doubts about the detail of the methodology (as noted above), I love the idea here. Independent monitoring of almost anything can be a powerful way of exerting pressure to improve standards. The 2013 report, referring back to data from 2012, demonstrates how this works:
“Last year, the Ministry of Finance won the Golden Key Award as the most open public institution. … The Minister received the institution’s award and summoned a meeting of the department where he informed staff that despite winning, the research also revealed weaknesses in the institution’s performance with regard to the provision of information. The Minister requested work on those areas; the website underwent major changes since then.
“On the same occasion, the Ministry of Legal and Constitutional Affairs (MOCLA) got the Golden Padlock Award for being the most secretive public institution. No representative attended the award ceremony, despite invitation. When one of our staff delivered the padlock to the Ministry, it did not take more than 20 minutes before the award was returned to our office.
“MISA-TAN met the Minister, Hon. Mathias Chikawe, in February 2013. At the meeting the Minister acknowledged what had happened the previous year and stated it has changed the way the Ministry operates. “Next year, I promise you we will not get this trophy again. We have pumped funding into our IT department and now they are making major renovations”.”
It’s disappointing that MISA did not return to the Ministries of Finance or Constitutional Affairs in 2013 or 2014, so we cannot see whether or the Ministers fulfilled their promises to improve. But it’s clear that the Ministers felt the pressure. That’s got to be a good thing.