Firstly, thank you for the welcome and thank you for the salu-salu…
This morning I am very pleased and honoured to deliver the opening remarks for this special training since I was the one who signed the first Ministerial Enforcement Order for the first seven agencies that are now covered under the RTI Act.
But before I proceed, I want to take this opportunity to thank the United Nations Regional Anti-Corruption Project (UN-PRAC), for working together with UNDP and UNODC, and also to DFAT for funding this training, and a special thank you to your consultant, Aylair Livingstone for accepting this task to come all the way to Vanuatu to spend few days with us and to facilitate this training. I don’t know if Vanuatu’s RTI status will ever be where it is today if it wasn’t for your initial support to kick-start RTI in Vanuatu. So, again thank you so much Ms Aylaire for your great support and contribution to the development of RTI in Vanuatu.
This training is a “MUST HAPPEN ONE” because it is vital for the initial stages of the RTI Implementation Phase. I say it is vital because of the special responsibility you, as participants have been nominated by your superiors to perform, under Section 10 (1) & (2) of the RTI Law.
The Right to Information law impose duties of openness on all officials working in public offices which are covered by the law. For the law to be implemented, all officials who work at a public organisation need to be committed to openness - because they are the ones who will create and manage the information that the public will be requesting. If they don't understand their duties properly or if they are not committed to implementing the law, then its effective operation will become more difficult and your agency or the government can incur liabilities.
Recognising how important it is that all officials covered by the law understand it and support it, experience in countries that have adopted this law, has shown that one of the most important activities that needs to be undertaken when preparing to implement any RTI law is to provide training to all officials. [JE1] This law specifically places an obligation on the Governments to provide training to public officials. As a priority, all Right To Information Officers (RTIOs) and Appellate Authorities need to be fully trained on what their responsibilities are under the law, how to manage applications/appeals and of course, how to apply and interpret the law.
As the front-line officers who are responsible for implementing the law, RTI Officers must have a complete understanding of the law so that they can answer questions from both the public, other officers and where necessary provide advice on RTI to their heads. More specifically, they should be aware of their duty to advise and assist information requesters. Likewise, they should be fully aware that they have a right to call on any officer for assistance, and that other officers have a duty to help them. While the law does give exceptional authority for RTI Officers to release information, your internal RTI Policies should assist you in the process.
I believe this training will help you to do the right thing, or to make right decisions. This training should also give you guidance on who to approach if you are unsure whether to release information. They should also be given assistance to implement the law's proactive disclosure provisions.
As RTI Officers, you will be working closely with Records and Information Officers and ITs in your respective agencies because they are the officers who will be responsible for supplying or directing you to information requested. Perhaps all Records and Information Officers, and filling clerks and ITs should also undertake this kind of training because they need to know what your duties are, so they can help you to assess whether the information should be properly discharged. The government is aware that the Appellate Authorities, who is known in the Act as Information Commissioner, is yet to be established. This office also will need to be given in-depth training on the specific provisions in the law, in particular the exemptions provisions, because they are the ones who will be called on to settle disputes. They need to understand when the exemptions can and can't be applied, to make sure that RTI Officers are not unfairly/improperly rejecting applications.
The releasing of Government information has traditionally been treated with great care. A lot of information are perceived as confidential information simply on the notion that it is a “government document”. There are already some experiences at the Ministerial and departmental levels of government where a member of staff was reprimanded for releasing information that the superiors feel it may cause negative impact on the government. This mindset must now be changed. We now have an Act that conforms with our international obligation under the UN Conventions on Human Rights. Public Servants must now accept that the office they occupy belongs of the public and the pubic have the right to know what information is held in it.
Under the RTI law public servants
Public servants must also know that this new law has a section on “Whistle blowers” that protects any officer over reprisal for releasing information on any wrongdoing; or releasing information which would disclose a serious threat to health, safety or the environment, as long as they acted in good faith and in the reasonable belief that the information was substantially true and disclosed evidence of wrongdoing or a serious threat to health, safety or the environment.
This RTI Officers training should be ongoing, so I am hoping that this will not be the first and the last such training. The government needs to place more emphasis on training by developing and implementing effective RTI training programmes for officials. We need to train government officers in the provinces Councils and outer islands on how to run RTI activities.
As the law is implemented, problems will be identified and these will need to be discussed with staff and solutions found. Over time, staff might become unclear about their duties under the RTI Act or have questions about implementation, so they should be given regular refresher training to make sure they all know what to do. The training programme should also be regularly reviewed to ensure that it takes into account suggestions from the public, the RTI Steering Committee and staff.
RTI Training can involve both Government and NGOs, as well as international organisations, as is the case in this particular training. I know NGO’s have been instrumental in providing awareness on RTI and I call on you to add training in your program to support the RTI implementation process.
Thank you again to those who are involved in ensuring this training takes place in the coming three days and thank you participants for being here to learn from your facilitators.
Thank you for listening.