27 July 2016

We didn't start the PAIA - but we've been fanning the local flames

The production of information never stops in a digital world where news travels faster than ever before, requiring the gatekeepers of information to stay ahead of the curve. In keeping with this, SAHA continued training municial officials, in partnership with the South African Local Government Association, on the 7th of July 2016. This was the second workshop of a the three part course aimed at equipping local government officials with the skills and knowledge to comply with both the proactive and reactive aspects of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA). The session was well attended with an increase in participants from invited municipalities, sadly however, there was a lack of any attendance by the relevant municipal managers, this despite steps taken by both SALGA and SAHA to encourage their attendance.

Focus of the second workshop

Whilst the first workshop focused on duties under PAIA requiring proactive release of informationt, the second workshop focused on ensuring compliant responses to any received PAIA requests. Participants were taken through all the steps from the receipt of a request to the delivery of a decision thereon with particular focus on the interpretation of sections of PAIA that are frequently misinterpreted or not complied with.

We covered all the significant aspects related to dealing with requests at the initial stage of the process, such as the receiving and acknowledgment of requests; drafting of fees notices, and notices of intention to refuse, and of extension of time; record identification; 3rd party notifications; and transfers. Additionally, particular attention was paid to the so-called “public interest override” provision, as we looked closely at how the courts have applied this provision. One of the participants noted that specifically the “examples provided were interesting and assisted with understanding.”

Challenges faced in ensuring access

In order to better our understanding of the challenges facing municipal officials, we opened up the workshop to those in attendance on what the most common problems they experienced in complying with PAIA, some of which were that, for example, that Deputy information officers require the co-operation of other officials, such as departmental heads, in order to provide access and that many heads of department fail to prioritise PAIA compliance. In some municipalities the Registry and the office receiving and processing PAIA requests function completely separately from one another other, and as many heads of department fail to engage with Registry, this means that Registry is often underutilised.

Given how close the workshop was to the local government elections in August, some of the officials noted that an additional complication at this time is the need to balance their duties as functionaries against the hustle and bustle of an election year. One participant indicated that, the closer August the 3rd came round, the more they would have to fulfil miscellaneous duties such as putting up posters in their ward.

Looking forward to the third workshop

As part of the training, we provided the participants with various draft templates created by SAHA, during the pilot phase of this project, and aimed at improving compliance by encouraging the creation and implementation of workflow systems for managing PAIA requests and requested feedback from participants on these templates. Furthermore, we asked participants to go back to their respective offices and conduct a PAIA compliance study and / or consider how compliant reports on their PAIA compliance, to the South African Human Rights Commission have been. As we look toward the third and final workshop we are reassured that the training is ensuring better compliance, with one participant noting in their feedback that they feel they now “understand PAIA in detail…” and are better equipped to “help [their] employer to be compliant.” We hope that this understanding will be increased further and that the municipalities participating will ensure easy access to information in their ward.