TESTING THE LIMITS OF OPENNESS, TRANSPARENCY AND ACCESS TO INFORMATION – Public access to information that Parliament requests from Departments
Our overall intention with this project is to support transparency and public access to information. We did this by assessing how often parliamentary committees rely on requests for information in addition to that which is presented or provided to committees during the public space of a meeting; to try to assess the extent to which departments comply with these requests; and to see how available these documents are to the public
Of the 46 parliamentary committees that held public meetings during a five-month period, just over half used this method to obtain additional information. The majority of the documents that were requested from departments were not made available to the public on request. The research could not establish the full extent to which the information was at least provided to committees.
The research concludes that the systems and processes to ensure that such additional requested information is both provided to committees by departments and made available to the public require urgent attention. Otherwise, the effect is that the Executive responses to Committees oversight questions are never made public. This is the equivalent of an ‘in camera’ meeting.
- Of the 46 parliamentary committees that held public meetings during this five-month period, just over half (24) made use of this method of obtaining additional information from departments.
- Out of 50 requests made by the 24 committees in the five months, PMG and DOI were only able to access 21 (42%).
- Requests made to departments for additional information is not an indication of an effective committee or an unprepared department, there are a range of reasons why additional information is requested.
- Some of the reasons given for requesting additional written information from departments included: meeting time constraints, information provided in meetings was inadequate, the requested information was unavailable at the meeting, the meeting experienced technical glitches and written responses would be more comprehensive.
- The busyness of a committee or frequency of its meetings was not a factor in the number of requests made.
- Most of the committees’ requests to departments did not include a timeframe or deadline.
- The prospects of this information being made available to the public is poor as there is no uniform procedure that follows constitutional guidelines.
- There was an indication of slow or unresponsive departments failing to provide this information to the public.
- Failures in providing requested information to committees and failing to make this information available to the public is problematic for oversight and for transparency.
- The Rules and Guide to Procedure need to contain a framework that ensures a systematic approach to additional written information requested from a department by a committee during an oversight meeting.
- The framework must stipulate that the constitutional standards for public transparency apply to these documents.
- The framework must specify the process to be followed before a document may be treated as confidential. This includes that where a decision is taken to close public access to a document (or meeting), reasons for this decision must be recorded and made available to the public.
- To meet the constitutional standards for public access, the framework must establish systems and mechanisms by which documents will be made available to the public and the public must reasonably be informed of where to access this information.
- The inception process for members and staff of the legislature must include education to promote clarity to committee chairpersons, members and secretaries of the general right of the public to access documents.
- The framework must include requirements for committees to: a) make use of timeframes when requesting additional information from the executive, and b) embed regular follow up with the executive on the requested information in committee systems.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.