Bureaucratic freedom of information
Georgia has excellent freedom of information (FOI) legislation, but public officials do not seem to be fully aware and may thus hamper public’s exercise of rights. Georgian legislation commands that public information be released immediately upon request and no later than 10 working days, to allow for synthesizing information when it is not readily available. The requesting party must immediately be notified of this delay. Even fairly informed citizens are not expected to know all aspects of legislation. So, when requesting official information, citizens rely on the agency in question to tell them what information they can get, when and how. Civil society is a frequent and highly informed user of FOI legislation for its work, and has also made efforts to document its success, or lack thereof, in getting public information and naming and shaming agencies for their compliance. Private citizens, however, have significantly less resources at their disposal. Interested in what information public agencies would be giving to citizens, we called all ministries and Tbilisi City Hall and asked for simple information in their domains as private citizens, not mentioning Transparency International Georgia. We used the general communication numbers listed on the agency web pages and at times the phone numbers of public relations departments. The outcomesof our test were remarkable.
- The Ministry of Finance gave us the shortest time-frame for replying, telling us the answer would be delivered no later than the next day.
- Eight out of 18 agencies tested told us we would be receiving an answer in 10 working days – the maximum allowed by legislation.
- One agency – the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation, first inquired if the caller was a private individual or a representative of an international organization. Assured of the former, the Ministry representative told us we would get a reply within seven working days.
- Some ministries went beyond the maximum time allowed by legislation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave itself two weeks and the Ministry of Health - 15 days to answer a simple FOI request.
- The Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Economic Development told us we would need to wait for a month to hear from them. The Ministry of Defense told us it would take the same, for a matter not urgent. Criteria for urgency were not offered.
- The most bizarre reply came from the Ministry of Interior, telling us there is no time frame set for answering FOI requests and we would get a reply whenever the Ministry dealt with the question.
Access to information is a basic and powerful tool for holding the government accountable. We are committed to educating the public, as well as public officials on this. We further urge Ministries and other public agencies to train their staff on FOI legislation and discipline those, who violate the law and mislead the public.