22 November 2013

Shadow report reveals PAIA compliance to be well below par

This year the PAIA Civil Society Network (PAIA CSN) has again released a shadow report to provide users' perspectives from civil society to support the South African Human Rights Commission in its role of monitoring the implementation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA), the law intended to give effect to the constitutional right of access to information. 

As in past years, the PAIA CSN has noted the continuing poor performance of information holders, particularly government departments, in responding to requests for access to information using PAIA.

The PAIA CSN considers the lack of a more proactive disclosure of records of public value is unnecessarily adding to the burden of responding to PAIA requests. The lack of a simple and timely declassification of records process, also adds obstacles in seeking release of information that should be available and released in the public interest.

While PAIA was enacted to foster a culture of transparency and accountability in public and private bodies to prevent, and counteract the secretive and unresponsive culture in public and private bodies that led to an abuse of power and human rights violations in the apartheid era - legislation on its own will not achieve those objectives.

The PAIA CSN is a collective of non-government organisations working together with the common objective of advancing the realisation of access to information rights for all South Africans by promoting the effective use and implementation of PAIA to build a culture of openness, accountability and transparency in the public sphere and in private businesses.

For this reasons, the PAIA CSN is clearly better able to submit PAIA requests than private individuals. However, the network continues to experience difficulties in making PAIA requests, due to the lack of PAIA manuals and contact information made available by public bodies, which is required by PAIA. It can only be assumed that individuals are finding the PAIA process almost impossible to navigate, and their right of access to information almost unenforceable.

Despite these difficulties, in the period 1 August 2012 to 31 July 2013 the PAIA CSN submitted more than 250 PAIA requests for information. Those requests have used the right of access to information in PAIA to enable the fuller exercise and protection of all other rights, including for example, environmental and housing rights.

Over that period the PAIA CSN has been monitoring its PAIA requests, in order to assess whether the right to access to information in terms of PAIA is being implemented by government and business. This year the PAIA CSN found:

  • a reduction in the full release of records, to an all time low of 16% of responses to PAIA requests;
  • a substantial increase in requests not being responded to at all. This year 54% of all initial requests and 62% of those on internal appeal, which should have been responded to in the period received no response at all; and
  • most requests were not responded to within statutory timeframes, with only 22% of responses meeting the requirements at initial request stage, and only 7% meeting the legislated deadlines on internal appeal.
  • patterns in refusals that suggest persistent failure by public bodies to meet their statutory requirements to create, manage and retrieve records.

As in past reports, the PAIA CSN attribute these worrying trends to lack of resources being made available to comply with PAIA. This results in officers that are untrained, unsupported by technology to meet the legislative requirements, and understaffed in processing and coordinating requests across departments.

Additionally, the PAIA CSN continues to be concerned about a work culture that allows important information not to be recorded at all, and ineffective record-keeping systems to identify and retrieve information that would be of use to Government and the community. Added to this is the continuing delays in 'declassification' of documents that appear to have been overclassified and which are then either not made available, or take months to process.

Interestingly, the National Development Plan 2030 notes the same endemic lack of compliance with PAIA and questions whether this is due to willful neglect, or perhaps an institutional culture of risk aversion and secrecy, the very issues that were intended to be addressed by PAIA.

In response to these increasingly significant limitations on the right of access to information, the PAIA CSN calls on senior government officials to make resources available for PAIA processing, and on departments to take stock and consider what records should be made routinely available, without the need for a PAIA request.

Read the 2013 PAIA CSN Shadow Report

Read the PAIA CSN Press Release: Disclosure of information at an all-time low