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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  Towards a transparent state

Towards a transparent state

RTI makes citizens ask for information—it should be freely available by default

The Right to Information Act has doubtless helped the cause of accountability. It has shaken the ‘system’, especially the bureaucracy that had coalesced into an unimaginable labyrinth of sinecures. Photo: HT (HT )Premium
The Right to Information Act has doubtless helped the cause of accountability. It has shaken the ‘system’, especially the bureaucracy that had coalesced into an unimaginable labyrinth of sinecures. Photo: HT
(HT )

In a recent column in Business Standard, economist Sanjeev Sanyal proposes the need for greater transparency of government rules and regulations—an administrative reform that can “dramatically improve governance". Sanyal notes that it is “nearly impossible" for even the most law-abiding citizens to be aware of what rules they need to follow. He proposes that all rules and procedures be notified in a real-time manner on the relevant government agency or department website, in one coherent document, rather than as a series of circulars.

We agree with Sanyal, for transparency of rules would not just make life easier for all citizens as they go about the mundane business of obtaining a driving licence or registering a new company. Transparency of rules is a meta-reform that can catalyse new debates on what rules are needed, and how existing rules may be expanded or curtailed. Greater transparency of rules would significantly improve the existing Right to Information Act.

The Right to Information Act has doubtless helped the cause of accountability. It has shaken the “system", especially the bureaucracy that had coalesced into an unimaginable labyrinth of sinecures. Thanks to the indefatigable idealism of activists such as H.D. Shourie and Aruna Roy, and building on the National Democratic Alliance government’s Freedom of Information Act (2002), the United Progressive Alliance government passed the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005. This has allowed many citizens to demand, and usually obtain, more transparency from government. But marginal returns from RTI are diminishing—it is in the interest of transparency and even economic efficiency that RTI be reformed, and its objectives be broadened.

The embedded time lags in the RTI process—it can takes months to obtain information, if re-appeals are included—and the associated paperwork deter queries on the relatively minor issues that citizens face in their daily lives. The transaction costs are simply too high for most people to use RTI for mundane matters. If one wants to know comprehensively about local laws and regulations—and the local department website offers incomplete, incoherently presented information—then high transaction costs mean that it makes rational sense to take the risk of being on the wrong side of the law, and often to simply bribe a middleman or a tout to “do the needful". If rules would be presented coherently on government department websites, in a time-stamped fashion to record amendments on an ongoing basis, it would save substantial time and effort for both citizens and government, and reduce the propensity of citizens to indulge in petty corruption.

Freely available and properly formatted government data could be the second plank towards a “transparent state". In the 10th Five Year Plan, the government had declared its intention to make publicly available most of its data—but this has not been achieved yet. The idea was that the Indian state should be a “SMART" (Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsible, Transparent) one.

As Transparency & Accountability Initiative said in a report published in May 2011, “this has led to many e-governance initiatives, but few of them have resulted in publicly accessible databases. And fewer still of these publicly accessible databases are ‘open’ in terms of data reusability (technologically, in terms of machine-readability and openness of formats, or legally), easily accessible (via search engines, for persons with disabilities, etc.) or understandable (marked up with annotations and metadata)." It goes on to say that “data is collected in a systematic and timely fashion; the problem is not the lack of a system, nor the timely collection of data, but rather the lack of consistency in the various terminologies and methodologies employed by different authorities. Moreover, data older than about 10 years, in particular, is likely to be on paper" and is not digitized.

In a democracy, public information should not be rationed by bureaucrats. If one commits to the principle of openness, the envelope can be pushed even further. Jaideep Prabhu, writing at the Centre Right India blog, noted how declassification of government documents and opening up of the National Archives could cure the Indian establishment’s allodoxaphobia, or fear of opinions. Prabhu rightly suggests that such openness could dramatically boost scholarship and analysis on India’s policy-making and governance, both past and present.

Mature democracies are voluntarily moving to release ever more information in the public domain. Recently, the Obama administration decided that almost all data collected by the government should be available free to the public, and that too with a “machine-readable" format being the default. Public data can also allow for better pricing of private goods and services. The Economist correctly assessed the benefits this would bring to citizens—“Pollution numbers will affect property prices. Restaurant reviews will mention official sanitation ratings. Data from toll-booths could be used to determine prices for nearby billboards."

Even the RTI Act acknowledges the role of putting more data online and elsewhere as a default, so that citizens do not have to ask for it, but unless this is enabled by law, it is unlikely to happen. As India’s democracy matures and deepens, RTI’s ambit should be expanded to bring in a new standard for transparency of rules where openness is the default, ushering in a transparent state where citizens can engage effortlessly with government and hold the government more accountable.

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of India Enterprise Council.

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Published: 02 Jul 2013, 12:12 PM IST
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