Access to government information

One of the most important instruments of citizens’ control of public authorities is the principle of public access to official records, that is, information generated by public institutions in conduct of their business. The governing principles of access to information are transparency, active participation, responsiveness, and accountability (UNDP, 2013, p. 2). The information age has meant an increased supply of and demand for information. Advancements in technology have made the publication of government information easier, which has in turn raised the citizens’ expectations about transparency and accountability. Freedom of information is part and parcel of an effective and democratic government (Mulley, 2010). The free flow of information from the government to the citizens is crucial to good governance because it is informed citizens that can hold their governments accountable for the policies and decisions they make on their behalf. Access to information further strengthens the conditions for transparency and accountability. It is also a basis for efficiency within government institutions and facilitates decision-making processes (Sida, 2013). The right to access information is recognized as a fundamental democratic right in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Fox, 2010). This right is further guaranteed through national constitutions in countries where freedom of information laws (FOI) have been adopted. FOI laws are recognized as international laws and they allow citizens to protect their rights, and are a safeguard against abuses, mismanagement, and corruption (Banisar, 2006). Citizens need to access vital information on issues that affect their lives such as health, weather, education, culture, and politics to name but a few. Official information is, therefore, of extreme importance and should be of good quality that is; complete, reliable, authentic, and trustworthy.

Bamgbose and Etim (2015, p. 1) argued that, “Information is the stimulus of all the thoughts and actions of living creatures. No doubt, it is a prerequisite for the functioning of the modern society because success in every area of human endeavour is premised on its intelligent use.” Democracy building requires knowledgeable citizens who can act on their rights. Recorded information enables citizens to access their constitutional rights and reliable and trustworthy information is crucial to the delivery of public services (Abuzawayda, Zawiyah, & Aziz, 2012). The role of records management in government institutions is, therefore, to identify and manage records for accountability (Johnson, 2003). Records are evidence of experiences and human activities and they enhance memory (Cunningham, 2005, p. 22). The aggregation of government records is what makes up government archives and in democratic societies, archives are meant to enhance democratic transparency and accountability. They empower members of the communities where there is access. That way, communities can monitor those they vote into power and influence bad governance, corruption, and lack of accountability (Cunningham, 2005:24). In established democracies such as in the Scandinavian countries, government archives and the national archives play a major role in enhancing transparency and accountability (Granstrom, Lundquist, & Fredriksson, 2000; J0rgensen, 2014). Government information is released in two forms: proactively, whereby government institutions publish what is now known as open data on their websites, and demand driven release of information which builds on the citizens’ requests for information (Jeffison & Lujala, 2015).

In fledgling democracies where transparency and accountability is still low, archives and archival institutions are neglected and hardly have the resources to play their role as the guardians and custodians of government information (International Records Management Trust, 2008; Svard, 2008, 2013). Since all governments are participating in the information age, the effective management of government information is of paramount importance to long-term transparency and accountability. The digital environment requires robust information and records management regimes and information management systems. In the digital and networked environment, the management of government information has become crucial since it is sometimes hard to establish the provenance of information and hence the responsibility for its management. Iacovino (2010) contended that memory loss in the electronic world is a threat to accountability. The networked digital environment has increased the complexity and volume of information that government institutions have to effectively manage in order to enhance their open governance structure. Thurston (2015) argued that building high-quality evidence involves an interface between interconnected laws, standards, well-defined metadata architectures, and technology systems. Archival legislation is, e.g., meant to enhance the effective management of government information and to promote access. In Sweden, the Archival Law requires all government institutions to manage their information/records in a manner that promotes readily access to information (Bohlin, 2010; Granstrom et al., 2000). The Archival Law is, however, usually only known to archivists and registrars and yet it is the basis for the effective management of government information and therefore key to safe guarding citizens’ rights (Svard, 2011, 2014).

Information can only be accessed where there are structures to capture and manage it for dissemination, preservation, and reuse. Poor information management regimes prevent access to information. Though transparency and accountability hinge on access to information, issues regarding its management are not equally prioritized especially in developing countries with poor information management infrastructures (Abuzawayda et al., 2012; Kemoni & Ngulube, 2008; Ngoepe, 2004). Mutula and Wamukoya (2009) postulated that sound information management is the basis for democratic governance. As democracy and good governance take momentum in, e.g., the developing countries, the key challenge that remains to be addressed is the role of information in promoting democracy, transparency, accountability, and the integrity in government. Today’s most prominent trend is the push for governments to release their data in order to increase accountability and transparency. This type of information is referred to as open data (Kalathil, 2015). The dissemination of government information additionally requires the use of different information technologies and other mechanisms, such as print media, radio, talk shows, and chalkboards to disseminate information to communities that still lack well diffused and developed Internet connectivity and with low literacy levels (Kalathil, 2015; Teemu, 2013).

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