Again, it is the same directive and, again, it is the same attitude of non-compliance. Recently, the department of personnel & training (DoPT) working under the Union ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions has given guidelines on suo motu disclosure under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act to be audited by a third party annually, but the response has been cold.
Time and again, RTI activists, users and experts have stressed the need for public authorities to upload information as per Section 4 of the RTI Act. Varsha Sinha, joint secretary of DoPT, in her circular has directed that “each ministry/ public authority should get its proactive disclosure package audited by a third party every year. The audit should cover compliance with the proactive disclosure guidelines as well as adequacy of the items included in the package.”
Ms Sinha further elaborates in her communication that, “the audit should examine whether there are any other types of information which could be proactively disclosed. Such audit should be done annually and should be communicated to the Central Information Commission (CIC) annually through publication on their own websites.”
DoPT has directed that the task of undertaking transparency audits should be given to government training institutes that come under the relevant ministry/ department/ public authority and across the states and Union Territories (UTs) or to any other government institute.
Referring to the annual report of the CIC for the year 2020-21, DoPT observes that, “out of 2275 public authorities registered with CIC, only 754 of them have been reported to get their proactive disclosure audited by a government training institute which has been viewed seriously by the government. This issue has come to the notice of the department related standing committee which raised concern over the third-party audit of the suo motu disclosure by public authorities.”
To recall, CIC, through its two letters on 27 August 2022 and 1 September 2022, has requested all the ministries/departments to take necessary steps and nominate the training institute for conducting transparency audit of their suo motu disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act. The CIC has also informed timelines for conducting third-party exercise for the year 2021-22 as per the following:
• The last date for submitting a self-appraisal form by public authorities on the CIC portal is 15 September 2022.
• The last date for submitting the audited report by training institutes on the CIC portal is 27 September 2022.
• The last date for submitting the recommendations/ comments by deputy registrars of the commission is 10 October 2022.
The CIC, in its report submitted to the DoPT, has pointed out that “Section 4 of the RTI Act, with all its structural limitations, can still become an ideal window for the citizen to peek into the twilight world of state bureaucracies and, even to shine a light onto it. At another level, when Public Authorities compete with each other for brownie points for better information disclosure on their websites and its superior quality, transparency is the gainer, so is the citizen.”
In conclusion, the report rues that, “we have been at pains to point out in our report that; while the audit of the websites of the Public Authorities is a necessary step in the direction of ushering in greater transparency… Only the government who control all supply side of information can perform this task.
"It is our hope that the initiative taken by the CIC to evaluate disclosure standards on websites of public authorities shall usher in the change, which the RTI Act enjoins. We repeat that institutional transparency is the final frontier of the Right to Information movement.”
True, but CIC, in reality, has itself been lenient towards public authorities not just about the public authorities hardly disclosing information under Section 4 but also in ensuring that public information officers (PIOs) are penalised and that they actually pay the penalty.
What does a CIC-recommended third-party audit comprise?
* Regularity of website audit – The audit of public authorities’ websites should not be sporadic but regular. CIC will need to play a key role in ensuring this. These audits should become a firm basis for progressive and incremental changes in the design and the content of the websites indicating the public authority’s seriousness about mandatory disclosures.
* CIC and DoPT may consider setting up a web-based mechanism to: (a) note all update dates of the websites, (b) send out advance reminders to PAs’ website managers, or nodal officers, regarding the approaching update dates, and (c) pursue defaulting PAs to effect updates and demand compliance from their nodal officers.
* CIC/ DoPT may consider setting up a separate dedicated unit for website monitoring and auditing.
* Audit oversight – Caution should be exercised to ensure that website audits are done only under the supervision of a central authority such as the CIC and not by any organisation which wants two minutes of fame under the RTI sun.
* Methodology – The website audit should be done through a predetermined methodology approved by the central authority such as the CIC either directly or through a peer group created for this purpose.
* Choice of auditors – In order to ensure that the audits are not slipshod or non-serious, the choice of auditors must be made carefully by the central authority/ CIC.
* Utilising the services of the nodal officers – The services of the nodal officers can be usefully requisitioned for monitoring the websites in order to ensure the quality and the number of online disclosures as well as to keep the websites updated.
* The role of the nodal officer will go a long way in achieving the goals set out in Section 4 of the RTI Act relating to disclosures of information by public authorities. It is strongly urged that this institution is extensively used to achieve the stated objectives of supply-side disclosures set out in RTI.
*Incentives – A scheme of incentives should be put in place to encourage PAs to take interest in the content of the websites. The nodal officers should be similarly incentivised for exceptional work and dedication.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)