One of the innovations of the past 30 years has been the creation and use of the “right to information (RTI)” laws to deepen democracy, enhance citizen participation, and generate transparent systems of governance.
An RTI law gives a person a right to demand information from a public body (and in some cases from private bodies as well) without having to disclose why the information is being sought. Such a right can enhance transparency in public administration, decrease the level of arbitrary decision-making, and facilitate citizen participation in government. It can also reduce corruption and prevent the abuse of public power. UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 commits States to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. More particularly, Target 16.10 aims to “ensure public access to information”.
By examining the work of the Sri Lankan RTI Commission over the past 2 years, this Article assesses whether RTI regimes and RTI commissions can be transformative in their impact, including to help realise SDG Goal 16. Can they help generate transparent, participatory, and less-corrupt development outcomes, foster a concept of active citizenship, provide genuine public scrutiny of government decision-making, and enable citizens to benefit from an inclusive development process?
Two key lessons emerge from the Sri Lankan experience with RTI. First, it is important that the RTI Law and a supporting enforcement structure is developed in partnership between state officers and the public, as this is likely to enable the RTI enforcement body to avoid having to adopt a confrontational or adversarial approach when giving effect to the principles contained in the law.
Second, the enforcement body – a dedicated RTI Commission – is well-advised to follow a transparent approach in hearing appeals where initial requests for the disclosure of information have been rejected by the public authority. It should aim to adhere to classic principles of natural justice by providing all relevant parties an opportunity to be heard. It should duly take account of pertinent contextual factors when balancing the competing rights of disclosure and confidentiality, bearing in mind the precedential value, and signalling the effect that its decisions are likely to have for public authorities and citizens.
Transformative and sustainable development requires active and substantive citizen participation. There must be a genuine and real opportunity to participate in processes that can shape development outcomes and help reduce social inequality. Political systems that allow citizens to access information and participate in processes of development are more likely to generate development outcomes that are transformative and sustainable.
RTI Commissions can help facilitate active citizen participation in public decision-making and promote more equitable and inclusive development outcomes, including for those in particularly vulnerable situations.