By Mills Abigail, Gij
In Ghana, substantial pressure from civil society compelled the government in 2003 to take steps towards drafting the legal framework that allows the public to access information. Following the continues engagement of civil society with the government, the Right to Information Bill was drafted in 2007 and received cabinet approval as a Bill in 2009 after series of modification, for onward submission to Parliament. The bill should have been passed by the end of 2010 or latest by 2012 but wasn’t. It however received its first reading in parliament and was finally passed in 2019.
While the passage of the act is necessary, it is not sufficient to ensure real access to public sector information if proper storage of digital records is not pursued. Poor storage of digital records will render the RTI law ineffective and undermine government effort to implement e-government. This is so because the realization of the core tenets of the legislation is contingent on the management of good records keeping.
The exercise of one’s right to request for records depends on the availability of information about records in the government ministries and private organization. Clearly, RTI has the potential to enhance records management either within an individual ministry or across government by making government officials aware about the importance of records and the significant role records play in supporting them to hold themselves accountable to what they do.
As the UK Lord Chancellor’s Code of Good Practice on the Management of Records (issued under the Freedom of Information Act 2000) indicates “FOI is only as good as the quality of the records and information to which it provides access. Access rights are of limited value if information cannot be found when requested or, if found, cannot be relied on as authoritative, or the arrangements for their eventual destruction or transfer to an archives, are inadequate”.
Now, public sector organizations are creating almost all of their information in digital form and this includes land records, parliamentary records and court records. However, this information is at risk due to technological obsolescence, lack of organizational policies, insufficient resources and fragile storage media. The country, in the last decade has witnessed reported cases of damaged documents in public institutions as a result of flood, fire, natural disaster, and computer virus and system failures. The nation has also lost a great deal of valuable institutional memory through poor record-keeping culture of many public institutions.
The RTI law will ensure that the digital information so preserved remains accessible to users for a long time and for future generations. The creation of a trusted system in this regard to manage records in our public agencies will eventually facilitate the use of the RTI law. A trusted information infrastructure is a type of system where rules govern which documents are eligible for inclusion in the preservation system; who may place records in the system and retrieve records from it, what may be done to the record, how long records remain in the system, and how records are removed from it.
In this techno-centric age, publishing comprehensive and up-to-date legal information online with free access is indispensable and feasible. It is the most efficient and cost-effective way to enable people to access the laws that govern them, anytime and everywhere. That is why the availability of free, comprehensive, and up- to-date official online information resources should now constitute the foremost benchmark of the adequacy of any public access to information program.
Whereas digital approach to public records will ensure long term accessibility of resources to the public, faster and better search possibilities using search tools; the RTI law will promptly respond to the efficient delivery of government services to citizens and business and better dissemination of government information. Since governance in every democratic culture is of the people, by the people and for the people, government ought to be responsible to the general public. Citizens demand trust, transparency and accountability from their government. Their records therefore must be kept and made available when they need them.