State-of-FOIE in Penang, 2016: Mid-visit Report (Part 1)

Sinar Project’s Freedom of Information Enactment (FOIE) Team is currently in Penang for the week to do our yearly survey of the state of FOIE in Penang.

To begin; here was last year’s summary: In 2015, FOIE in Penang was in its first year of actual implementation and was still immature in implementation.

Likely due to that, the process was chaotic but due to the helpful staff of Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Negeri (SUK) [props. to En Baharom; retired since last Dec], 3 requests were submitted successfully: 1 to SUK, 1 to Jabatan Kewangan Negeri, 1 to MBPP.

Observations: FOIE Submission Process Improved

However, unlike in Selangor, Penang’s FOIE is much simpler and streamlined, there is a One-Stop-Shop for it in Komtar, Level 3; you technically do not need to go running around looking for the Information Officer (see below for caveats) to make a request.

I am happy to report that this year the FOIE process has been much improved, you just need to go to the Payment Counter (Kaunter Bayaran) and hand in the FOIE Request Form.  There is a process now in place to check with the Department involved in the request, and get any necessary clarification on the question asked.

However, the cost of RM50 or RM100 per request is still too steep (we’ll address this in an upcoming article).

With that said; especially if you do not know what data to ask for explicitly; it would still be advisable to go talk to the Information Officer as they will be likely to have the needed Domain Expertise to advise you.

Be forewarned though; just like in Selangor, the awareness at the Front Desks about FOIE is fairly low and the officers given the Information Officer role changes often.  In the informal survey done, a fair number of Information Officers listed in the Official Gazetted (Warta) Information Officers List are no longer in their role.

Best bet: go look under the Administrative (Pengurusan) of the related Departments and ask for the FOI Officer (Pegawai Enakmen Kebebasan Maklumat).

 

 

Conversation: Information Officer’s Training

AtCAT

To find out about the state of the Information Officer Training, I went to talk to the Officer (with whom I had dealt with last year) who was in charge of FOIE Implementation within SUK last year.

Puan Subamarla, now in the UPEN section of SUK; provided a lot of interesting information (as per below).  From her perspective, the overall FOIE process is fine so far.

 

What I found out:

  • SUK is the official Department to ensure the smooth implementation of FOIE Requests.  Appeals process for Rejected Applications is also kicked off by submitting to the SUK.
  • Since the official start of FOIE implementation state-wide in Jan 2015; there has been 3 subsequent formal training done for Information Officers.
  • Currently; SUK does not perform formal training for new Information Officers; help is offered via face-to-face guidance for any Information Officer who requests it.  This offer for help is made know to each new Information Officer.
  • Information Officers perform the role as part of their job scope.  They do not receive additional allowances unlike their counterpart in Selangor.
  • Information Officers perform the role individually; they do not have the extra helping hand from an appointed Assistant (like what there is in Selangor).
  • Since personnel changes position quite often and with that the Information Officer role; SUK will wait for a few cycle of changes before bringing it to the State Assembly to be Gazetted.

Firstly, it is recommended that since changes happen so often; the Official Gazetted (Warta) Information Officers List should only gazette the fixed email (e.g foi.suk@penang.gov.my) and  phone number for each Department; with the incoming Information Officer taking ownership of it.

While it is good that all Information Officers have a single-point of reference with SUK; proper training is actually essential for the best execution of a proper FOIE process.  Perhaps one idea would be to ensure the previous Information Officers with the official training assisting to co-train the new Information Officers; especially providing guidance for the grey-area real-life cases.  Important is to ensure the First Principles of FOIE is always kept in mind when handling requests.

Also; there should at least be a yearly refresher for all Information Officers. Here, they can share experience and learn Best Practices.  Even better; invite their Selangor counterparts along to do joint-training together with experienced FOI Information Officers from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to facilitate (as per suggested by Selangor’s FOIE EXCO Elizabeth Wong during the SELCAT Hearings on FOIE Implementation).

A properly trained Information Officer with the right alignment with the State’s Objective of Transparency is absolutely a joy to work with.  Case in point: Puan Haslida, the Assistant Information Officer in MBPJ, Selangor. She is helpful in assisting the requestor with crafting requests that are targeted, precise, and to the point. She will also ensure roadblocks like reluctant colleagues are addressed.

Public Interest Test Case #1: Penang Transport Council, Bahagian Kerajaan Tempatan (SUK)

 

Fort_Cornwallis

Background: SRS, the chosen PDP of the Penang Transport Master Plan will start its proposed implementation early 2017.  However, the recommendations and studies have not been published online in easily accessible form for public inspection and discussion.

Today’s test FOIE request was made to the Penang Transport Council, Bahagian Kerajaan Tempatan which falls under SUK.  The public can track the progress of the request online at: Penang Transport Council: 20 Volume SRS Study/Report

FOIE_Penang_SUK_Aug232016

The submission went through smoothly; with the only potential hiccup implied; in that access to the electronic copies of the volumes is not allowed and they can only be accessed via physical viewing in a room.

This is absolutely within the bounds of the Enactment Section 10 (1): “.. information may be provided .. in the most practical form..”; although in this day and age where everything is digital (e.g. the original SRS Proposals, Studies), it raises red flags.

The problem and potential conflict comes if the Requestor is prevented from bringing in smart phone, tablet or in my case; I have my own portable scanner 🙂 and is restricted to only pen-and-paper (which is hardly practical for transcribing 20 Volumes!).

If there are restrictions placed in duplicating the information, this will be in direct violation of the Enactment Section 5 (1) which states:

Any person must be given access to information available in every department.

See the great analysis by MP Steven Sim about the thought-process when strengthening this Section: Revisiting Penang’s Freedom of Information Enactment (Part I)

Hopefully, no such restrictions – that clearly violate the FOIE Principles – will be placed; but we will cross the bridge when we get there.

Tomorrow; we’ll go file for the rest of the Departments and attempt to get data in softcopy form, to not kill anymore trees than necessary 😦

The plan for tomorrow is as per below:

  1. Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat – Program/initiatives in 2016 breakdown by daerah, when, which community; including detailed breakdown of spending and demographics.
  2. Jabatan Pengairan & Saliran – Detected polution of water source and river, date, details, location and action taken.
  3. Pejabat Daerah & Tanah (DTL, SPU, SPS, DBD)  – Detailed Report of “Kegunaan Peruntukan ADUN + MP” in 2016.

 

More Updates soon in Part 2 …

 

NOTE: Content (c) Sinar Project: CC By-SA -- share freely!
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