A network of information officers

Jordan was the first Arab country to grant its citizens the right to access information held by public bodies when it passed Law No. 47 for the Year 2007 Guaranteeing the Right to Obtain Information.

Although this was an important achievement, for many years it remained largely symbolic, as little was done in terms of either supplying or demanding information.

Few public bodies even bothered to take the first step of appointing an information officer — the officials who are specifically tasked with making sure the bodies they work for respond to requests for information — without which little can be expected to happen.

On the other side of the equation, public interest in the law was also initially low and only a tiny number of requests were made each year.

This has now started to change, in some cases quite dramatically.

The number of requests for information appears to be rising, perhaps quite significantly, with some reports suggesting that 13,000 requests were made in 2016, although it is not clear that all of these were official requests made under the Access to Information Law. Equally important, at least 60 public bodies appointed information officers.

Since early January 2017, the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD), with the support of UNESCO Amman office and the Department of the National Library, has provided training to almost all of these officers.

Many public bodies have gone even further and started to take other steps to implement the law.

This may include making the forms used to request information available at their offices and online, organising and classifying their documents, putting in place a protocol for responding to requests and for providing assistance to requesters, making information available proactively (i.e., without waiting for a request) and so on.

As happens in most countries, this has led to an uneven pattern of development whereby some public bodies both get more requests and have done more to implement the law.

For these cutting edge public bodies, implementation often involves trying new things and experimenting to see what works, because no one has ever really done these things before.

It also involves spending the time to develop products, such as a guide for requesters.

However, once these products, which each organisation should have, have been created, they can be adapted by other public bodies, which is far more efficient than each one creating its own.

The idea of developing a network of information officers in Jordan is currently being discussed, again with the support of CLD, UNESCO Amman office and the National Library.

This would, at a minimum, be a discussion forum for information officers to share ideas and discuss the challenges they face.

But it could also go far beyond that, and undertake activities such as holding conferences on access to information, publishing a regular newsletter, and providing ongoing training for existing and new members.

Such networks exist in many countries. In my own country, Canada, the Privacy and Access Council of Canada is a large and active organisation that conducts many events.

The potential benefit of such a network for all Jordanians is essentially better implementation of the Access to Information Law.

Experience in other countries suggests that such networks tend to result in better sharing of good practices, leading to better upwards homogenisation across public bodies (i.e., more bodies rolling out the same good practices). They also result in more coherent, consistent practice across public bodies, so that citizens can expect to get the same level of service everywhere.

Finally, they promote capacity building among information officers, which leads to downstream benefits for requesters, again in terms of better implementation of the law.

These networks also provide important benefits to information officers. In addition to capacity building, they provide opportunities for information officers to discuss the challenges they are facing with colleagues who may have dealt with similar issues.

They may also provide opportunities for information officers to have more in-depth debates about some of the larger challenges they face. This can lead to new ideas and solutions that may benefit everyone.

The writer, toby@law-democracy.org, is executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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