SAHA is honoured to have been awarded the Golden Key Award for “Most Active Civil Society User of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA)” at the National Information Officers Forum (NIOF), hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on International Right to Know Day (28 September 2015). Other Golden Key Awards went to the National Archives, Eskom and the Department of Environmental Affairs as “Most Responsive Public Bodies” with the SAHRC this year aiming to award bodies that had, in dealing with PAIA – and access to information more broadly, achieved more than just basic compliance.
The theme for this year’s NIOF was “Towards an Open Government – Connecting the Dots” and discussions were centered on the intersection of various open government initiatives with PAIA. A panel discussion on "Increasing Commitment to Transparency and Access to Information - a Strategic Perspective" highlighted the importance of openness and transparency in effective governance with several speakers, including the SAHRC's Deputy Chairperson Pregaluxmi (Pregs) Govender, noting a need for movement beyond basic compliance toward responsiveness. It was noted that the duty to ensure that the information gap between government and the people is bridged lies with government, with Deputy Minister John Jeffery opening his address by stating that the bottom line of his message to information and deputy information officers was to “get the information out.” Beyond government though it was also noted that the effectiveness of PAIA depends on cooperation with and between other stakeholders, including Chapter 9 organisations, civil society and, very importantly, the private sector. The importance of the need for diversity within society to be reflected in the variety of platforms and languages in which information is recorded and made accessible was also underscored by panel members, as well as other attendants.
Deputy Minister John Jeffery in his address noted the importance of repercussions for non-compliance with PAIA calling for disciplinary action against officials that ignore PAIA requests or fail to give access, despite decisions having been taken to grant such access. The DM also gave some feedback on the long awaited Information Regulator (IR) indicating that Parliament will shortly be interviewing and appointing Commissioners to the office of the IR and that it was hoped that the office will be operational by the next financial year. Answering a question about what had caused delays in the setting up of this office he indicated that the Department of Justice had been engaged in negotiations with Treasury about salary grading for the IR Commissioners – in order to ensure that the positions would be adequately remunerated. He indicated that the IR's office will have at least three permanent Commissioners: one responsible for PAIA, one responsible for the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013 (POPIA) and the third fulfilling an oversight function. There will be a further two Commissioners appointed that could be either full-time or part-time and who will assist in each of the two PAIA and POPIA offices. The Deputy Minister noted that POPIA specifically provides that the IR's recommendations will be binding and that any disagreement with the IR’s findings will only be challengeable through the courts.
A further panel discussion on "Increasing Substantive Implementation" noted the critical need for ensuring improvement on PAIA Compliance at the local government level with Mr Dudley Peterson, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA), noting that one of the key issues in this regard was ensuring that records are kept in an accessible manner. Mr Peterson indicated that CoGTA is for this reason, and in order to ensure that communities get credible, accurate information on basic service delivery, partnering with National Archives on records management improvement at local government level. CoGTA is, through its “Back to Basics” approach, aiming to improve local government performance at all levels, including with respect to access to information.
Staying on the topic of record keeping the Head of Information and Knowledge Management in the Office of the Auditor General (AGSA), Ms Tshimangadzo Malaudzi challenged delegates to consider what it would take to make record keeping a strategic government function. She noted that records management is not a “nice to have” but a strategic tool that should be approached as a risk management function. Ms Malaudzi noted that the AGSA audits record management systems as it takes account of the fact that good record keeping ultimately decreases disclaimers and adverse outcomes in the audit process.
Mr Stanley Ntakumba, Acting Director and Deputy Director General: Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPME) within the Presidency, noted that better accountability of officials is central to increasing implementation. Speaking on the use of the Monitoring Performance Assessment Tool to ensure accountability, he noted that MPAT measures, with regard to PAIA: whether deputy info officers have been appointed, whether section 14 manuals are finalised (in three languages), whether section 32 reports have been provided to the SAHRC and whether a records management policy exists. The SAHRC Deputy Chair noted that something clearly missing from MPAT was a measure for proactive disclosure, and suggested this be addressed.
All in all the day was full of robust and interesting discussion and an excellent opportunity for interaction between the various stakeholders; we are looking forward to seeing some of the ideas discussed taken forward in practice.