Tuesday, August 15, 2017

CULTURE OF SECRECY STILL EMBEDDED IN PUBLIC OFFICIALS

The culture of secrecy is still embedded in public officials especially in the central government as opposed to Local Government despite improvement in service delivery and access to information, a recent study has revealed.

A study which was conducted by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Tanzania Chapter with support from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) aimed at looking at Access to Information in Local Government Authorities (LGAs) and Central Government offices in Tanzania. The LGAs were represented by the City and Municipal Councils and the Central Government was represented by the Regional Commissioners’ Offices.

This study wished to find out how central government and local government authorities are transparent and accountable to citizens. The study also strived to find out how the general public do/can access information in public offices.

Practical experience from Journalists who conducted the study shows that there is an improvement in service delivery and access to information in some of the public offices especially in Local Government as opposed to Central Government.

However, they say laxity among public servants is still a big problem in public service. “If you received someone’s documents, while would you say you can’t see them just a week later?” questions Haika Kimaro, Mwananchi Correspondent in Mtwara.

Similar sentiments were echoed by George Binagi, a Radio Journalist in Mwanza. “I submitted my questions in writing to the Regional Commissioner’s Office. I went back 10 days after and yet I did not get the answers , they looked for my letter and they never saw it” .

“At Kigoma Ujiji Municipal Council they received the letter but they did not reply and even after going there for follow up, the Secretary claimed to have misplaced the letter”, says Rhoda Ezekiel, Uhuru Newspaper Correspondent in Kigoma Region.

Jacquline Jones, Mass Communication graduate and intern at MISA Tanzania offices says she went to the Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner’s office posing as a student researcher. But because she didn’t have the letter from her university they refused to offer her the information she requested, saying their work procedures don’t allow them to do so regardless of the information she wanted.

“Their customer service is awful and the people at the registry department they were quite harsh and rude. One of them actually shouted at me for insisting on getting my answers in a written form”, says Ms Jones.

She also submitted a similar request (but with different questions) to the Dar es Salaam City Council, which, according to the Information Officer it needed at least four different Heads of Sections, who gladly availed to her all the information she wanted.

One of the questions that were asked to those who did the study was, “Did you experience good customer care among those who receive visitors/respond to telephone calls?” According to Zulfa Musa, Mwananchi Newspaper Correspondent in Arusha, there are telephones in the City Council’s offices which are received by their assistants, but the Director and his secretary have private phones that they both receive and call personally. She says that while at the office she witnessed different people receiving good service and direction and if the person in charge was not around, they were told that the person will be informed when she/he gets back.

As previously said, the study used journalists as researchers. According to the findings, it was very interesting to see how people who usually seek information from these public offices are treated in some offices. The question that researchers ask themselves is how ordinary citizens would be treated in some of these very same offices if people with proper identification like them face those challenges.

In its concluding remarks, the study tells that it is hard to deny the fact that free and easier access to government-held information is key to development of any democracy. It is an important aspect in promoting transparency and accountability.

According to Information experts, access to quality and timely information by everyone, and most importantly to rural population, is crucial in facilitating informed dialogue, monitoring and evaluation of development issues at the local level and to enhance governance and accountability for improved delivery of service and implementation of projects.

“There was an Access to Information Act that was passed in 2016. The only challenge I see for now is that both public servants and the general public are unaware of this Law. There is a need for sensitization of the law among public servants. It is in public offices where most of the information is generated. It is important they know what the law entails”, says Sengiyumva Gasirigwa, Information and Research Officer at MISA Tanzania.

He adds that there is a need for specialized trainings/seminars/workshops for public officials on Freedom of Information (FOI) issues and the public’s Right to Know (Access to public-held information) vis-à-vis its importance to country’s development.

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