30 October 2015

The fastest response to a request for information... Ever

It did not take the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) months, weeks or even days to respond to a PAIA request from SAHA. Within two hours of submitting the request SAHA received an acknowledgement, the decision and almost all the records. This is worth noting and putting down in the freedom of information history books as "The world's fastest response to a request for information".

On the 8th of October 2015 SAHA, in consultation with a master's student from Switzerland, submitted a PAIA request to DIRCO. The request was for a number of specific Bi-lateral investment treaties (BIT) South Africa had entered into with various states that were not publicly available at the time. In the response letter the department's information officer explained that the records are actually supposed to be automatically available for public access on their website, but cannot be found there now as their website is currently under construction.

According to the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA) requestees have 30 days to provide a decision on a request, unless this period is extended within the narrow parameters provided for in section 26 of PAIA. Sadly most requestee bodies fail to provide decisions within the legislated time frame, in fact, according to the Civil Society Network's Shadow Report for 2014 46% of the refusals on PAIA requests submitted by the network over the period covered by the report were actually deemed refused because no decision was provided within the prescribed timeframe.

In light of this, a 2 hour turn-around time on a request is a pleasant surprise and in stark contrast with a recent decision on some PAIA requests SAHA made to Transnet that came 593 days late after submission as opposed to the 30 day period provided by PAIA- and a complete failure to provide any decision at all on a Request to the Office of the Inspector General.

DIRCO has exceeded SAHA's expectations in more ways than just the prompt release of information. PAIA mandates the fostering of a culture of transparency and accountability and therefore calls for more than minimum compliance with the provisions of the Act. DIRCO has demonstrated some of the ways in which a department can go the extra mile in ensuring access to information:

  • They have an accessible section 14 PAIA manual that outlines the process of attaining information from the department; 
  • In compliance with section 15 of PAIA they also published in the Government Gazette (page 90 -93 of Gazette no. 39172) a list of records proactively available on their website and elsewhere; and    
  • They have demonstrated that where proactively available records are requested in a PAIA request these are made available without the levying of fees ordinarily associated with PAIA requests.

It is particularly refreshing to see a department taking steps to ensure proactive disclosure, as proactive disclosure not only benefits information requestors but also requestee bodies, by saving them time and energy required for dealing with repeated requests for similar information. DIRCO's demonstrated level of compliance with PAIA in this respect is therefore highly commendable - it gives hope that government is indeed making use of section 15 and its provision for proactive release and that more departments may follow suite in making use of this section. Indeed, if we want to see the "effective access" called for in the Preamble to PAIA more bodies will have to ensure they go beyond just basic compliance with PAIA.

Get more feedback on requests on the FOIP website