By Abubakar Jimoh
The recent global commemoration of International Day of Democracy freshened discussions on legislative openness, which aims at ensuring core democratic functions of legislature like lawmaking, representation and oversight are as transparent and inclusive as possible at all levels.
Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) has observed that having an open legislature helps the legislators adapt to social and technological changes, respond to citizen demands and stay close to the constituents. Through open legislature, a legislature provides more information and expands citizen participation in a deliberate and meaningful way that makes it more effective in delivering democratic dividend to the electorate.
It is a proven fact that every citizen regardless of his or her social, political, economic, education and ethno-religion background has the right to obtain information, as defines under Section 1 (1) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, 2011, which states: “No matter what any other Law or regulation says, everyone has the right to get or ask for information, whether or not the information is in written form, that is under the control of any public officer, civil servant, government agency or institution of any kind.
The Section continued: “(2) Any member of the public asking for information under this Law should not be asked why he or she needs the information under this Law should not be asked why he or she needs the information he or she is asking for.
The Act mandates every public institution to keep its records and information about all its activities operations and businesses in proper manner that will help the public to have easy access to such information.
Meanwhile, FOI Act is an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression, as recognised by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that the fundamental right of freedom of expression encompasses the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Similarly, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights recognizes for African citizens freedoms of religion, information and expression, association and assembly, movement, political participation, freedom from slavery, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
On this note, right to obtain information remains fundamentally part of citizens’ rights. The right to obtain information is essential to promote transparency and accountability in governance, which manifests in democratic life of the people and nation at large.
Institute for Development of Freedom of Information has observed the essential significant of citizens’ engagement in the democratic process, when it noted that commitments to the legislative openness include an open legislature, accountability and citizens’ rights to engage in legislative work.
It is noteworthy to mention that the holistic approach to legislative openness has been employed by Parliament of Georgia, which engages the citizens using modern technology like posting rule, draft laws and collated documents on website for inputs or comments. Georgia Parliament understands that in order to increase the level of public involvement, it is important to allow citizens to comment on draft legislation and newly adopted laws.
In Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, ‘e-Democracia’ platform is in operation using social media and new technology to engage actors in the legislative process. Through the ‘Brazilian e-Democracia’, comments are allowed into draft legislation, providing citizens with opportunity to check whether their comments are incorporated into law.
Similarly, the story of legislature’s library is part of the history of Finnish society, where since in 1913, the library’s openness sets a good example by creating document libraries, where citizens have a free access to and where they can openly get to know the documents of parliamentary sessions. Also through the library, answers are searched and found for their questions.
Legislative openness is increasingly recognized for its crucial role in making legislative information more accessible to citizens, strengthening the capacity of citizens to participate in parliamentary processes, advocating for greater access to government and parliamentary information and improving parliamentary accountability, and increasing collaborative dialogue among the world’s legislatures on issues affecting legislative reform.
A Declaration of Parliamentary Openness issued in 2012 at the e-world Parliament Conference adopted by Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) revealed that legislative information belongs to the public; and could be reused or republished by citizens with any limited restrictions narrowly defined by law. This will enable a culture of legislative openness that ensures inclusive citizen participation and a free civil society. It will enable effective legislative oversight that vigorously protects these rights of citizens.
Legislative openness strengthens relationship between the people and the government and provides a means for the people to participate in the oversight of government policies and programmes. Legislative authority is exercised and upheld by legitimacy. The legitimacy is guaranteed by strong trust reposed on the legislature by the people. Strong trust in this case, cannot be achieved without adequate democratic process to allow for effective participation by citizens at all levels. Also, the legislature should not only focus on oversight over executive activities but also take an active role in international governance openness and transparency initiatives.
Besides, the legislature has the responsibility to promote citizens’ understanding of legislative activities through provision of complete, accurate, and timely information to increase openness and transparency.
In order to ensure well-informed citizens on legislative activities, legislature should adopt policies that ensure constant publication of legislative information with periodical review of the policies to take advantage of evolving good practices. The 2012 Declaration on Parliamentary Openness describes legislative information as information about legislature’s roles and functions, and information generated throughout the legislative process, including the text of introduced legislation and amendments, votes, the legislative agenda and schedule, records of plenary and committee proceedings, historical information, and all other information that forms a part of the legislative record, such as reports created for or by legislature.
An opened legislature provides adequate information about the backgrounds, activities and affairs of members, including sufficient information for citizens to make informed judgments regarding their integrity and probity, and potential conflicts of interest. An opened legislature must ensure information is broadly accessible to all citizens on a non-discriminatory basis through multiple channels such as print media, radio, television and on-demand broadcasts.
More importantly, to ensure openness, citizens’ participation must be encouraged through physical access to the legislature. All citizens irrespective of their social, economic, political and ethno-religion backgrounds should be allowed access to the legislature.
Adopting online platforms remain effective channel to release and disseminate legislative information in timely and accessible manner. The platforms should be structured to pave way for two-way communication between the legislature and the citizens, rather than merely information dissemination. Effort to use online platforms should consider presenting information to the citizens in such accessible formats that allow citizens to analyze and reuse the information using the full range of technology tools.
For instance legislative websites like www.nassnig.org, www.lagoshouseofassembly.gov.ng, www.rsha.gov.ng, www.kanoassembly.gov.ng should enable communication with citizens even in communities with limited internet accessibility, by facilitating information access to intermediaries, which can further disseminate the information to citizens. Legislature has a duty to ensure technological usability and adaptability of legislative information, while guaranteeing the privacy for those accessing the information. The citizens should fully utilise the online platforms in interacting with the legislature.
Effort to create culture of openness in the legislature should recognize public ownership of legislative information; guarantee effective implementation of laws ensuring openness in the conduct of government activities in a full transparent manner; stimulate civic education of the public by promoting understanding of legislative activities; the roles of legislature and its members; vigorously engage citizens and civil society in legislative processes and decision making to effectively represent citizens’ interests and protect their rights to demand accountability with active consideration of smooth operation of civil society without restriction; recognize the right and duty of civil society, media, and the general public to monitor legislature, and engage in consultations with civil society to encourage effective monitoring and reduce hurdles in accessing legislative information.
In order to immune the legislators with adequate knowledge and experience in the performance of their duties, the legislature should encourage their active participation in international and regional exchanges of good practice with other legislature and civil society organizations to increase the openness and transparency of legislative information, improve the use of information and communication technologies, and strengthen adherence to democratic principles.