Malacañang eyes online portal to process FOI requests

MANILA, Philippines – The Presidential Communications Office (PCO) is eyeing the use of an online portal to process the bulk of requests that would reach government agencies once President Rodrigo Duterte's executive order (EO) on Freedom of Information (FOI) is fully implemented in November.

PCO Assistant Secretary Kristian Ablan told the House committee on public information on Tuesday, October 11, that they will be setting up a digital platform called "e-FOI" where requests can be filed and processed.

"There is a need to have an online application for lodging FOI requests. We foresee that if we only implement the standards of the FOI, then the agencies will be burdened by FOI requests which the agencies will not be able to address immediately," said Ablan during the panel's hearing on the proposed FOI bills.

The PCO official said the platform is already in the works, and would initially be for 10 agencies – the departments of Budget and Management, Finance, Transportation, Justice, Health, Education, Information and Communications Technology; the Philippine Statistics Authority; the National Archives; and the PCO.

"We looked at other countries implementing FOI and the first year they implemented it, there is a surge of FOI requests. What these countries [did] is to have an e-FOI and open data," Ablan added. 

The portal will be linked to Open Data Philippines, which is the national online repository of public data.

Preparations for full implementation

The PCO has also scheduled trainings for agencies under the executive branch to properly implement the President's EO.  The workshops are scheduled on October 14 and 21.

Signed last July 23, the EO mandating full disclosure of public documents and information will be implemented in full on November 25.

By that time, Ablan noted, each agency under the executive branch must have a people's FOI manual.

Ablan also said the Office of the Executive Secretary will be submitting the list of government documents exempted from the order within two weeks. From 166, the number of exceptions has been reduced to 10, following the standards of other countries with similar policies like the United States and Australia.

'FOI bill now'

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, aim to pass the FOI bill by yearend. (READ: Why the Philippines needs a freedom of information law

"Considering that FOI has been languishing in Congress for nearly 3 decades now, we aim to come up with a harmonized FOI bill and have it approved by the House as soon as possible, by the end of this year," said ACT Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio, who chairs the public information panel.

The panel has created a technical working group to "harmonize" and consolidate the suggestions aired during consultations and Tuesday's hearing.

Among the proposals mentioned was the recognition of the "mosaic effect" in disclosing public documents.

The mosaic effect, Ablan explained, is when a person or entity is able to piece together bits of information into a profile that might pose a threat to a person's privacy or public security.

Tinio gave an assurance, however, that the right to information will be balanced with the right to privacy in the crafting of the measure.

"Most of the bills include a provision prohibiting the unauthorized release of sensitive personal information in government custody. This will address the concerns regarding the so-called mosaic effect," he said.

Aside from the mosaic effect, the executive also sought the creation of an office that will oversee the implementation of the FOI law.

Lawyer Irene Aguila of the Right to Know Right Now! Coalition, meanwhile, asked the committee to consider the reduction of information to be disclosed, rather than complete rejection of a document request.

She also raised the possibility of declassification of confidential documents after a certain period of time.

"While there are certain information that should be exempted from the public's view, after a certain time they should be made available to the public," Aguila told lawmakers. – Rappler.com 

Patty Pasion

Patty leads the Rappler+ membership program. She used to be a Rappler multimedia reporter who covered politics, labor, and development issues of vulnerable sectors.

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