Leveraging ICT to Promote the Right to Information in Uganda: Insights from Ask Your Government Portal

By Loyce Kyogabirwe | 

Despite the existence of legal and regulatory frameworks that promote the right to information, access to public information remains a big challenge in Uganda. The potential of ICT to promote citizens’ access to information is widely acknowledged and in 2014, the government and civil society partners launched the Ask Your Government (AYG) web platform that allows citizens to make online information requests to government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

However, four years on, it is evident that most citizens might not be aware of their right to informationlet alone the procedures for accessing information and data that is held by public bodies. Meanwhile, public officials continue to ignore citizens’ information requests despite efforts to equip both the duty bearers and rights holders, including information officersjournalists as well as women’s rights organisations,  with knowledge and skills on rights and responsibilities.

User statistics from the AYG portal show an increase in the number of requests as well as number of public agencies registered on the portal. Between 2014 and 2016, only 243 requests were submitted to 76 agencies. But by June 2018, the number of information requests submitted had reached 2,450, to 106 MDAs (20 Ministries, 60 Departments and Agencies and 26 to Local Government Officials).  

Use of the Ask Your Gov Uganda platform between 2013 and 2018

The highest number of information requests have been submitted to the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) –  350 between June 2014 and June 2018, followed by the Ministry of Defence with 152.

However, the nature of requests lodged still indicates a misinterpretation of what falls under a public information request as most of the submissions are related to internships and Tax Identification Numbers (TIN). Perhaps this is an indication of the priority information needs of many of the portal’s users.  

Also of concern is the low response rate to information requests. Of the 2,450 requests submitted between June 2014 and June 2018, only 121 have been indicated as successful and and 102 as partially successful, representing an average response rate of 9%.  Less than 1% of requests (20) were rejected while those still awaiting responses are 2,074 or 85%. The 85% can be regarded as refusals under section 18 of the Access to Information Act (ATIA), 2005 which states: “an information officer fails to give the decision on a request for access to the person concerned within the period contemplated under section 16, the information officer is, for the purposes of this Act, regarded as having refused the request.”  The response period is 21 days.

In some cases where public information was requested, users were advised to visit the respective MDAs in order to access such information. For example  Davidson Ndyabahika, a journalist working with Uganda Radio Network, requested for statistics of enrolment and performance of both private and public primary and secondary schools in Ntungamo District from 2010 to 2016 from the Ministry of Education and Sports. He was advised to physically visit the Ministry offices where he would be cleared first before accessing such information. Such a response  indicates challenges with digitised information storage and retrieval among public agencies although section 10 of the Act mandates information officers to ensure that records of a public body are accessible.

Equally, there are cases where limitations of the portal have emerged and information has been withheld because it can only be provided after payment of the statutory search fees. The ATIA specifies a non-refundable access fee of Uganda Shillings (UGX) 20,000 (USD 5) which remains a high cost for the majority of the population.

The limited levels of government responsiveness to information requests and uptake of AYG by both citizens and public officials impact upon initiatives working to promote access to public information for social accountability and civic engagement. This calls for more capacity enhancement, sensitisation and awareness raising among public officials of their duties and responsibilities as laid down in the Access to Information Act.  Likewise, MDAs ought to utilise the different ICT platforms and tools to proactively release public information as prescribed in the Act and make efforts to ensure that citizens are aware of such information and where to find it.

Under Section 7 of the Act, public bodies are mandated to compile manuals containing descriptions, addresses, the nature of work, services and how to access information within six months after the commencement of the Act. However, 13 years since the law was passed, only the Ministry of Lands and Urban Development has adhered to this requirement. Indeed the ministry was in 2015 awarded the most responsive public entity as part of commemoration of International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).

Likewise, section 43 of the Act requires every minister to submit an annual report to Parliament on requests for records or access to information made to a public body under his or her ministry indicating acceptance or rejection, and reasons for rejection. However, there has never been any report from ministers since 2005 when the Law was passed, and Parliament has never demanded for such reports.

Meanwhile there should be efforts to continuously empower citizens to fully exercise their right of access to information as stated in Article 41 of the Constitution and Section 5 of the ATIA. Such efforts include capacity building of different demographic groups such as women, youth, persons with disabilities (PWDs), journalists, and teachers to demand for public information relating to service delivery and accountability while utilising different ICT platforms and tools including the AYG portal. Public officials should also be empowered to utilise these tools to proactively share public information with citizens.

The AYG is an initiative of the Ministry ICT and National Guidance in partnership with the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

Call for Evaluation Consultant: ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is seeking an evaluation consultant to establish the achievements, outcome and challenges registered by the ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network during the period November 2013 – October 2015. The evaluation will assess the appropriateness, effectiveness and outcomes of the network in relation to the program objectives.

Closing date for applications: 17:00 hours East African Time (EAT) on Thursday November 19, 2015

Further details on the scope, eligibility and how to apply are available here.

IST Conference 2012 – Tanzania

Members of the ICT4Democracy East Africa Network, CHRAGG and iHub Research attended the IST Africa 2012 conference last week. The conference started with an opening plenary where the Guest of Honor, Tanzania’s Professor Makame Mbarawa (Minister of Communications, Science, and Technology) kicked off the conference. A round table on the Implementation of the Information Society Track of the 8th Africa-EU Strategic Partnership followed. For more information on the project, check out their website. The aim of the project is to strengthen ICT research and policy links between Africa and Europe. The project builds upon the substantial results obtained and the significant momentum created by several previous projects, designated over the years as the “EuroAfrica ICT Initiative.” The next EuroAfrica ICT Awareness & Training Workshop will be June 13 – 14 in Maseru, Lesotho.

After lunch, iHub Research presented their M-Governance exploratory survey results, funded by SPIDER and conducted as part of the ICT4Dem Network.

A reoccurring theme throughout the conference was the development of local content.

Professor Nkoma of TCRA stated that challenges in Tanzania include lack of local content as well as last mile connectivity. Twitter followers on #istafrica2012 agreed that this is an issue not just in Tanzania but also in Kenya, Zambia, and across Africa. The question then arose, “Do people have the skills necessary to develop local content?” The KINU representative (an incubation hub in Tanzania) stressed the need for local capacity building in order to spur businesses and local content generation. Catherinerose Barretto (KINU) stated, “We need to foster innovation and creativity from an early age. In addition to mentorship and skills-based training on the job, we also need to teach students to question and think critically.”

It was raised during the conference that the East Africa community has already seen the need to come together and create communities to catalyze innovation. iHub together with The KINU, RLabs, and HiveCoLab were mentioned as examples of the local community coming together to build local content.

The conference was comprised of 3 days of paper presentations using a parallel stream approach with six on-going parallel sessions. Overall session topics included: Internet of Things; M-Health; EGovernment & eDemocracy; Broadband Access in Africa; TV White Space Spectrum; Living Labs; ICT Entrepreneurship in Tanzania; M-Learning; ICT for Environmental Risk Management.

An interesting presentation was a session on “Sensors, Empowerment and Accountability,” SEMA for short. All presenters during the session came from ITC from the University of Twente, Netherlands and spoke on different aspects of the 3-year project that they have recently launched. The SEMA project looks at enhancing the relationship between citizens and government agencies through mobile communications and web technology in Tanzania. One of the project managers, Jeroen Verplanke, spoke on “slow burn” versus crisis reporting. “Slow burn” issues are on-going over an extended period of time and don’t look to improve in the short-term. Verplanke noticed this phenomenon stating that daily needs that are not events do not often trigger app use because even if these daily needs are not met, coping mechanisms exist. On the other hand, a disaster or crisis situation is much more emotionally engaging as a reminder to report or act.

At the end of Verplanke’s presentation, he highlighted an often-repeated challenge that “technology can be an enabler, but you need the right processes and support in place.” This is so important to keep in mind in ICTD discussions; it deserves to be often repeated.

What is the ICT for Democracy Network

The ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network is premised on the recognition that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) enhances communication and the right to freedom of expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information. In this respect, ICT has the potential to increase citizens’ participation in decision-making processes, thus strengthening democratisation.