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Website opens door to citizens' right to information

"Ask Your Government" is aimed at promoting Ugandan citizens' right to information in support of transparency, accountability and good governance. It is an initiative of the Office of the Prime Minister, in partnership with Africa Freedom of Information Centre and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa.

A view of the Ugandan Parliament and Statistics House, Kampala
A view of the Ugandan Parliament and Statistics House, Kampala

Pete Price/Flickr/http://bit.ly/1hYHpKw

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) through the Ministry of Information and National Guidance launched on 14th August the Ask Your Government (AYG) online platform (www.askyourgov.ug) at the Imperial Royale Hotel, Kampala. AYG is an initiative of the OPM in partnership with Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). It is aimed at promoting Ugandan citizens' right to information in support of transparency, accountability and good governance.

The launch was officiated by Hon. Rose Namayanja Nsereko, Minister of Information and National Guidance who highlighted the changes that government has undertaken in improving information availability within government and amongst Ugandan citizens. She noted, "The tool avails to Ugandans an opportunity to access public information. We as government can also use the platform when planning by identifying the types of information that citizens most request." She also added that the platform will increase public scrutiny of the Ugandan government and enhance transparency and accountability to citizens.

"When AFIC started with this project, we wanted to develop a tool to help citizenry not only to understand but to also use the legal tools to actively participate in the public decision-making processes and structures in an informed way."

In his opening remarks, Simon Mayende, Director at the Ministry of Information and National Guidance (MING) in the OPM stressed the commitment of the Ministry towards "ensuring that the public access information held by all public bodies." He added that "there should be no barriers of this right of citizens." The launch was attended by media as well as information officers from various government offices who will be the key drivers of the success of the platform. Also present were members of civil society organisations and development partners.

Activities at the launch included a round table discussion. Panellists included Moses Watasa, Commissioner with the OPM/MING and representatives of civil society organisations including Gilbert Sendugwa (AFIC), Wairagala Wakabi (CIPESA), Patrick Tumwine (Human Rights Network), Jude Odaro (Uganda Debt Network) and MareikeLe Pelley (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung).

A user guide was distributed amongst all those present to help them navigate through the processes of requesting and responding to information queries. It was also the opportunity to launch the Right to Information Training Manual with the support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Uganda.

When AFIC started with this project, we wanted to develop a tool to help citizenry not only to understand but to also use the legal tools to actively participate in the public decision-making processes and structures in an informed way.

We paid attention to the software from MySociety, a British NGO that developed Alavateli. Alavateli is an open source platform for making public freedom of information requests to public bodies.

This software allows citizens to fill information request to public bodies in two simple steps but maybe the most important aspect of this portal is that, these requests and the response are public. In that way the communication officers for government don't need to answer the same request twice and information is public for anyone that wants to access it. Users can express their satisfaction with the response and the Ask Your Government team can do statistics about the number, quality of responses, more active agencies among others.

Participation has a cost but we believe that with new technologies we can make the first step of getting informed easier.

"This software allows citizens to fill information request to public bodies in two simple steps, but maybe the most important aspect of this portal is that these requests and the responses are public."

AYG.ug is new and it is in its implementation and growing phase. We recognise that the process is not easy and smooth. Several obstacles associated with the Ugandan context have been faced.

First, the work of getting contacts from communication officers is slow. The law says that every public body is supposed to have an information officer who is a chief executive of the organization (for example in a district the Chief Administrative Officer is an executive officer and the information/communication officer as well).

Second, the level of technologic development, implementation and use within the government offices is too low. And the lack of culture to use email and social platforms make difficult a timely and effective use of the tool. So the supply side presents some deficiencies that we could summarize as:

- Lack of commitment with openness

- Lack of capacity to answer through a platform like AYG

- Lack of knowledge of the law and its obligations

On the other hand we see that the demand side presents also serious problems:

The real Ugandan doesn't have easy and cheap access to Internet and citizenry is not still completely integrated to the use of new technologies. There are some parts of rural Uganda where access to Internet is far and expensive and where local leaders and stakeholders don't have yet incorporated new technologies to their daily work. This is also an obstacle to take fully advantage of the opportunities that nowadays new applications are bringing to development of communities.

"There are some parts of rural Uganda where access to Internet is far and expensive and where local leaders and stakeholders don't have yet incorporated new technologies to their daily work."

We need to build capacities of both sides, citizens/civil society and government on political rights as access to information, principles of transparency and benefits of openness.

However, support from key stakeholders from government, The World Bank and new partners are a windows of opportunity for these initiatives. AFIC experience has shown that civil society and community groups receive positively tools that empowers them and meeting with information/communication officials welcome innovations.

Ask Your Government will benefit both government and society in the following ways:

1. A more accessible transparent and effective government

2. Saves money, time and public officers work of answering repeated requests

3. Provides statistics about submitted and answered requests

4. Incorporates the use of ICT and its benefits in the work of Government MDAs

AFIC is currently working in partnership with CIPESA, who can bring expertise and support in this stage of implementation. Also AFIC has been from the first moment in partnership with the Coalition of Freedom of Information represented by HURINET. Together we started engagement with the Ministry of Information and National Guidance from the Office of the Prime Minister that has been providing contacts for Information Officers and agencies, and helps with popularization of the portal.

Ask Your Government in Uganda follows a general and world trend, we just need to visit the Alavateli website and we will see that it has been replicated in 18 countries enabling more that 200,000 public information requests. And leaving us with interesting and successful project like tuderechoasaber.es in Spain and Whatdotheyknow.com in United Kingdom or AsktheEU.org which covers the whole Europe.

We invite you to visit AskYourGovernment, get familiar to it, popularize it among your colleagues and networks, request information that is your right and stay informed which is your duty.

www.askyourgov.ug

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/askyourgovug

Twitter: @AskYourGovUg

Hashtag: #AYGUganda

Email: [email protected]

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