On Freedom of Information: A Message to Government

By Joy Aceron*


I write this piece to give an unsolicited advice and needed reminder to government offices and officials on their access to information practices. This particularly becomes crucial at this time after years of rollback in key governance reforms and threats to civic spaces, and given the need for accurate information to fight fake news in the elections and as a centerpiece agenda for the new administration to improve the responsiveness and efficiency of governance.

The standing challenge now in the new generation of transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) measures, such as open data initiative, proactive disclosure, transparency seals and digitalization, is how the voluminous data and information and platforms being made available by government offices is being used - how transparency leads to or enables citizen participation and accountability.

There are volumes and volumes of data being uploaded online - on government websites, on open data portals and government social media accounts. There are many platforms developed and made available for use of the public. The biggest question to government is: are these data, information and platforms being used?


Users who come to you is the answer.

If civic groups, especially those involved in accountability, took the initiative to go to your office to ask for data and information, take it as an opportunity that you badly need.

Reports from Open Government Partnership (OGP), IT for Change and other international organizations on open government reforms and budget transparency have noted the problem of uptake on or demand for information and data that are being made available by the government. This is validated in the recent experience of accountability frontliners during COVID. While accountability frontliners have sustained citizen monitoring in the Philippines amid COVID, there are indications of growing bureaucratization of access to information. This is surprising given the prevailing supply-demand gap in the use of government data.

The government needs users of its data and information. Users justify why in the first place a lot of energy in government is allotted to collect data, store and analyze data and make data and information available. We have too much ‘upward accountability’ (being accountable to those at the top: bosses, donors). We need more of ‘downward accountability’ (accountability to people, communities).

Demand for data to advance governance responsiveness and accountability is hard to find. So if users, such as civic groups, media, academe or concerned citizens, come to your office asking for information using their own time and resources, that’s your problem being solved for you, your challenge being addressed for you. Grab it.

Because, really, what are the information that you are building and the reports that you are preparing for in the first place? For people to use it. That’s what it is for.


“What if it’s used for bad purposes?” What bad purpose?!

What exactly are considered bad reasons or purposes in using government information?

What and how citizens of make use of public information is none of your concern. This needs to be clarified.

Sorry to remind our friends in government, policing is not the main function of the entire government machinery.

Under the Duterte government, there seems to be a goal of turning the Philippines into a “Police State.” Even in the delivery of social services during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is ‘reverse accountability,’ where instead of State accountability measures (eg. validation in Social Amelioration Program) checking government and its officials, it is employed mainly to monitor citizen compliance. This direction is not acceptable because we are a democratic state where power emanates from the people. Policing the people at all times is undemocratic. It is, in fact, fascistic; and the Philippine institutional-legal framework is far from fascism.

There is a reason government offices are called *public* offices and you are called *public* officials. There is a reason the programs and services you provide are called *public* programs and services. There is a reason you are spending people and money in preparing reports, posting online, making data supposedly open.

Transparency in democracy leads to multiplicities of motivations, interests, purposes. It is not your job to control and stop that. It is not your job to filter which ones are acceptable and which are not. Not all of you are the police.

If used properly, transparency measures too will protect you. The Sunshine Principle: also through information and transparency, you can correct any errors, straighten facts, clarify your points. You got the entire government machinery to mobilize in making your voices heard. You have the entire Filipino people as audience. More than the rest, you have access to media.

So what are you afraid of in opening up and letting people do whatever they want with the information that you got, which is their right to know in the first place? People can do whatever they want with public information and documents. You can protect yourself if that is abused.


“There are processes and requirements that we need to follow first.” Wrong.

The process set by the Executive Order on Freedom of Information (e-FoI), International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and/ or guidelines by your office should not restrain access to information. It should facilitate it. It should not be viewed and carried out as a required bureaucratic process. Standard processes and bureaucratic requirements should be employed to assure information are made available, not to make access to information more difficult.

Transparency and citizen participation measures are supposedly employed to cut red tape. We can’t be bureaucratizing transparency and citizen participation measures. Imagine - red tape in transparency and citizen participation? It’s ridiculous! Yet, it has emerged to be a thing now.

If you can already provide the information and data being asked, then provide it; everything else can follow. The default mode of government should be facilitative of access to information. Always.

This needs to be said and reflected more. Public office is a public trust. The Constitution guarantees the right to information. This is a principle powerful and sufficient enough to guide practice.


“We need to go through the process because some data could be protected by Data Privacy Act.” Distracting!

This is another favorite reason (an excuse, to be exact) to limit/ constrain people’s access to information nowadays.

As anticipated, the Data Privacy Act is now becoming a State shield to hinder transparency and accountability. The exemptions to access to information should be an exemption, not the rule.

Data in government are public (and therefore open) by default unless proven as not, given the Data Privacy Act. You can go through the technicalities, but this is the bottomline of public accountability in a democracy.

It is not acceptable that the Data Privacy Act is applied a priori or before the fact. That’s censorship and is definitely anti-transparency, participation and accountability.

Besides, what about programs especially those supposed to be hallmarks of citizen engagement and good governance reforms should be inaccessible and not open to public scrutiny and civil society oversight? What about it can and should only be made accessible to which chosen people at which chosen time? And who decide?

‘How about the right to privacy of government officials or beneficiaries?’ If it’s media, NGOs or academe requesting, how likely really that they are after a particular government official or beneficiary? And how sensitive would information about individuals involved in government that it will be more important to be protected than freedom of information?

The fact is that the information often being requested pertain to government performance as a whole. The reality is that those in government frontline offices would know this as soon as someone requests the information. Besides, what did they say again: ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.’


Being transparent cannot be selective; it’s key in fighting disinformation.

Transparency is a culture that government needs to perpetually nurture.

The government (its agencies, programs, services, practices) is not transparent when it only chooses when and which information it will open up. Government programs that are supposedly or reported to be taking measures to be transparent but are implemented by agencies that do not nurture a culture of transparency are walking contradictions inviting doubt and suspicion.

In the age of fake news and disinformation, accurate, verifiable, complete and clear information from the government that citizens can use for accountability becomes even more crucial. It is a potent tool for citizens not only to hold power to account, but also to help fight disinformation and lies. Especially during the time of elections, it is urgently critical for citizens to access good and credible information. 

Government being fully transparent and proactively facilitating access to information can enable voters to access needed information for them to know what are the critical governance issues and agenda that they should raise and mainstream in the campaigns and who should be made accountable in the elections. Our organization, Government Watch (G-Watch), points this out in its recent statement on the May polls, appealing to citizens to make elections an accountability platform.

Transparency measures are employed to build trust. Selective transparency does not build trust. For transparency to work as a means to win public trust, it needs to be a culture that’s beyond rules and processes, a guiding principle at all times and spaces, a practice we set free to spread, conquer and win.

In short, government friends, you have no choice but to - as you should happily - make information truly accessible and free.


* Joy Aceron is convenor-director of Government Watch (G-Watch) and research affiliate-adviser to Accountability Research Center (ARC).