"Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, and not Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life." US President Wilson Woodrow, 1908
Narratives concerning Access to Information laws globally follow what has become a disturbingly familiar pattern, punctuated with words including “broken,” “dysfunctional,” and “useless.”
What is more, this characterisation comes from the very people who should be champions of greater and more efficient use, public servants and journalists.
But there are signs of change and the Thomson Foundation is working with public government officials in Rwanda to support this change.
The above observation by Wilson Woodrow about the nature of governmental evolution is reflected not simply in the laws produced by governments, but also in the implementation and interpretation of those laws and constitutional provisions already in existence.
The emergence of access to information laws in Africa is a testament to the evolution of governments.
“Access to Information legislation is a strong foundation for recognising and affirming the state’s responsibility to provide information in the public interest,” says Jo Lomas, the British High Commissioner in Kigali, Rwanda.
Today, there are 23 states with comprehensive laws on access to information. Most of the countries passed the laws in the last decade. Before 2010, only five Africa countries had such laws. These are South Africa (2000), Zimbabwe (2002), Angola (2002), Uganda (2005) and Ethiopia (2008).
The implementation of these laws falls to public officials working in government departments. This is never an easy assignment as there are those in the same government that seek to maintain and legitimize secrecy.
Plunged into the roles of being the team to broker access, these public officials have a complex duty:
Thomson Foundation is working with Rwandan government officers by producing a series of online training courses and e-workshops designed to equip them with the technical skills to interpret the law, navigate the complex internal relationships and ensure that all information requests are dealt with properly.
While it uses Rwandan law as the focus, it borrows experiences and makes references to others laws in Africa. Hence it is a course that can be taken by any public official tasked with the role of implementing access to information law in their respective country.
“Improving access to information in Rwanda is important in supporting greater transparency and accountability of government to its citizens: an important goal in its own right, and to enable greater dialogue between government and citizens to improve service delivery and contribute to the government’s policy decisions,” adds Jo Lomas the British High Commissioner in Kigali, Rwanda.
The Project, "Effective Implementation of Access to Information Law in Rwanda" is funded by the British High Commission in Kigali, Rwanda.
Henry is a public and social policy analyst and governance specialist who leads the foundation’s course on the effective exercise of freedom of information for public officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Rwanda. He is a commissioner for the Kenya Media Complaints Commission