Editor’s Note: Senator Grace Poe delivered this keynote speech at a forum titled “A Week before the SONA: State of the FOI Bill” organized by Rappler and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on July 21, 2014 at the Mind Museum in Taguig. Poe is the principal sponsor of the Senate version of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill.
I will tell you a story to better illustrate why FOI makes perfect political sense and why it will bring about a more stable, more vibrant and more inclusive democracy in our country.
Who among you here used to watch “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Di ba it was such a big hit years ago, and I believe there was even a local version of the show here hosted by Christopher de Leon. For the benefit of those who are not fond of watching TV, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is a game show involving two contestants who try to outwit/beat each other by giving the most number of correct answers. Each question has a corresponding monetary price, which increases in value and difficulty as the game progresses. The contestant that answers the most number of questions correctly wins.
Anyway, part of the show’s format is that each contestant is given three (3) “lifelines” in case he does not know the answer to a question. The three (3) “lifelines” are the 50/50, Ask-the-Audience and Phone-a-Friend. In the 50/50, the multiple-choice answers are narrowed down into just two so that the contestant will have a 50-50 chance of giving the right answer.
In “Ask-the-Audience,” the contestant is allowed to ask the studio audience what they think is the most correct answer. The last lifeline, “Phone-a-Friend,” the contestant calls a friend to help him answer a question which he does not know the answer to.
The reason why I am mentioning “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” here is because awhile ago I came across a book which claimed that statistically, the “Ask-the-Audience” lifeline generates the most number of correct answers more than the Dial-a-Friend portion, which is really quite surprising because in the Dial-a-Friend, the contestant chooses a “friend” presumably because he is the smartest person the contestant knows. But the finding of the study showed that the intelligent “friend” is only correct half of the time, while the studio audience is almost always correct most of the time.
‘Wisdom of crowd superior’
The title of the book is “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki, and the book’s main thesis is quite interesting. Surowiecki proposed that under the right circumstances the collective wisdom of the crowd is vastly superior than the intellect of the smartest individual. I suggest that you get a copy because the book gives many compelling examples of why the “Many” are smarter than the “Few” and how collective wisdom influences and really shapes business, economies, societies and nations.
Surowiecki, in his book, provides another interesting anecdote to prove his “wisdom of the crowd” theory. Francis Galton was a British scientist obsessed with two things: 1) the measurement of physical and mental qualities and 2) breeding.
He believed that only a very few people had the characteristics necessary to govern society and he devoted much of his career to measuring those characteristics in order to prove that the vast majority of people did not have them.
Galton supposed that “only if power and control stayed in the hands of the select, well-bred few could a society remain healthy and strong.” Galton, incidentally, was a first cousin of Charles Darwin who wrote “Evolution of the Species.”
Anyway, in 1906 Sir Francis Galton attended a livestock/country fair in West England. Wandering through the stalls examining horses, pigs, chicken, cattle, and all manner of livestock, Galton stumbled upon a “Weight-Guessing” contest – a fat cow was on display and the person who could accurately guess the weight of the cow wins a prize. For sixpence you will be given a stub/ticket wherein you fill up your name and address, and write down your estimate.
About 800 people participated in the “pa-contest.” Some of those who joined were butchers and farmers who were presumably expert at judging livestock, but the vast majority of the crowd came from non-agricultural backgrounds, i.e., clerks, factory workers, ordinary townspeople, etc. with no knowledge about livestock.
Observing the contest, Galton was suddenly hit with an idea. He surmised that the “weight-guessing contest” is really like democracy – i.e., people of radically different abilities and interests get one ticket and one vote and are asked to judge the weight of a cow (candidates).
“The average participant was probably as well-fitted for making a just estimate of the cow as an average voter is of judging the merits of political issues on which he votes,” Galton wrote in his journal. He was interested in finding out what the “average voter” was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little.
After the contest, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them. Galton arranged the guesses (which totaled 787 in all, after he had to discard 13 because they were illegible) in order from highest to lowest, and graphed them to see if they would form a bell curve.
Then he added all the contestants’ estimates, and calculated the mean of the group’s guesses. That mean number, in a way, represented the collective wisdom of the West England crowd. If the crowd were a single person, that was how it would have guessed the cow’s weight.
Galton thought that the crowd’s guess would be way off the mark. But he was wrong. The crowd had guessed that the weight of the cow was 1,197 pounds. The real weight of the cow was 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgment was essentially perfect.
What Francis Galton discovered that day was empirical proof of the “Wisdom of Crowds” – the simple but powerful truth that under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in the group.
Policy made by few failed us
This belief – that the collective wisdom of the crowd is superior to the personal judgment of even the most exceptional individual/leader – lies at the heart and is really the main rationale for FOI. This belief that the “wisdom of the crowd” is better than the “wisdom of the individual” serves as the single most compelling justification why we should grant our people access to information.
I sense that resistance to FOI by some quarters of our society really emanates from this “misappreciation” of the crowd and the misconception that FOI will be disruptive to government operations at best, “mob rule” at worst.
This sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated by what a character of Jack Nicholson in “A few good men” said, “You can’t handle the truth.” Implying that people simply cannot handle the truth and that the truth must sometimes be hidden from them so that they can all go on and live their merry lives.
The most serious challenge, therefore, to FOI is the conventional wisdom that the Filipino people do not know any better, that for our country to develop, our people must be governed by a well-educated, well-born, elite few. What, after all, will the people do with all the information that will be made available to them after FOI?
For some people, this “wisdom of the crowd” concept is “counter-intuitive,” erroneous even, because we have been taught to believe that people more intelligent than us know better. From childhood to adulthood, we have been conditioned to trust and defer to the decisions of people “better” than us. And we have learned to accept the opinion of the so-called “experts” as gospel truth.
I am sure that many of us are not that kind of people.
Throughout history the Philippines has been ruled by people who were “superior” to us – e.g. bar topnotchers, men and women of exceptional talent and keen intellect. We were all led to believe that they knew what’s best for our country and we allowed them to decide our country’s future for us. And where did it get us?
As we have seen, centralized planning and decision-making do not always work. Policy decisions made at the top by an elite few, even with the best of interests at heart, did not work because there was no prior consultation, no “buy in” from the people. Government policies failed simply because our people did not understand wholly what these programs were seeking to accomplish for them.
Strengths of Senate FOI bill
I would like to highlight the strengths of this version to allay, maybe, the fears of others that it might be unwieldy later on if it is approved. Here are the strong points of the FOI:
Number 1 there’s always a legal presumption for the right to information.
Number 2, there is an automatic uploading of pertinent information including the SALN of anyone in the government with salary grade 26 and above plus heads of agencies and office in all the websites of the government agencies.
Number 3, there are remedies, both judicial and administrative, that are clearly specified.
Number 4, there is a period of declassification, because some of you will be worried about the presidential communications privilege, the power of the president to withhold information if he thinks that this could disrupt national security, there is a period of declassification for him to make sure that the information will be available for public scrutiny.
Number 5, criminal and administrative penalties are clear.
Number 6, there are archiving provisions. For example, which information can be discarded after 5 years but which of them will have to be kept forever? For example, investigations on graft and corruption, certain bids and awards given by the government.
Number 7, protection of the individual’s right to privacy, this is something that we cannot forget while doing the freedom of information, the individual’s right to privacy is still protected.
Number 8, disclosure of information between private contractors and details of their transactions with the government. So any private contractor who enters into a deal with the government has to be ready to be able to show the portion of their contract that has any dealings with the government.
Number 9, there are still national security controls. Maybe some of you might question, but with all of these national security controls, what if the president or anyone uses national security as an excuse?
There is also a provision that says the FOI or national security cannot be used to cover up a wrongful act, that’s why together with the freedom of information we also have to pass the whistle blowers’ protection act.
Imagine if we had FOI pre-DAP?
So for the past year-and-a-half, the news has been and continues to be about the PDAF and the loud whispers about the Malampaya and now the DAP. Right when the President spoke, the DBM uploaded information on where most of the DAP projects went.
Can you imagine if we had the FOI, even before the money was spent, the DBM would be compelled to present and post the projects beforehand, not just after the fact.
Just yesterday PDI (Philippine Daily Inquirer) mentioned, in one of its articles, that Mindanao, through the efforts of this administration, is getting a lot of financial support.
From 2010, I think they had about P10 billion which, now in 2014, the budget would give them about P20 billion additional funds for the success of the ARMM, the Bangsamoro.
Also in this article, it basically said how are we able to determine how countrymen in Mindanao are doing now, in fact when you look at it, it seems that their plight is unchanged, there are still problems about health education and security.
I think that if this is detailed more in a particular website, the Bangsamoro group, the Mindanao group of Secretary Antonino, if all of these are posted, where the money goes, we will have less doubts about how the government is spending all of these funds that are supposed to uplift the lives of our countrymen. Granted it takes years to improve on decays of neglect, but should the government not start detailing all of these, not just in Mindanao, but all over the country?
‘The Filipino is not stupid’
I believe that the masa is not dumb, ang Pilipino po ay hindi tanga, nagmumukha lang tayong tanga dahil kulang tayo sa sapat na impormasyon. Our people want information, they crave for information about what their government is doing and not doing for them, and today’s generation of Filipinos want information fast, and they want it free, we cannot expect today’s youth to line up just to get their desired document, they want the information posted instantly, downloadable on a government website. Today’s generation quite literally (wants information) at their fingertips, at sa pamamagitan ng FOI mabibigay po natin sa taumbayan ang kagustuhan nilang mas maintindihan ang kanilang gobyerno. (Through the FOI, we can give the people what they want, which is to better understand their government.)
In 2012, the Philippine government signed partnerships with the open government partnerships of different countries. We are the first one that signed, and part of the condition is that you should have freedom of information (law) in your country and we still don’t have it until now.
Now what does this provide? The open government partnerships should have the government encourage its people to participate in government by having a freedom of information (law), by having information readily available, and part of it also is to secure that the information given to the people is easily sorted through, because I’m sure some of you are lawyers, you will know.
In the US if they don’t want the case to, if they want to make it difficult, let’s say for the other party, to understand the case, they will give that party so much documents and so many facts that it will be so difficult to sort through them.
The same way with the government, the government should be able to provide an easy index for the people to be able to go through information, and if they want to go through particular information, then they can go to the agency itself.
Beyond Senate, Congress
In the FOI, I think part of the thing that you will also discuss, is that in our bill, in our act, the FOI act of the Senate, the National Computer Center, together with the DOST, will help every government agency to be compliant within two to 3 years.
So even the local government has to have some sort of working website, so that people can also scrutinize what’s going on in the local scene.
As you know the focus has been in the Senate and in Congress with regard to the use of our funds and the different main agencies of government. But local government is also very important with the FOI, it’s like doing test control basically in all areas of the government.
If you only treat one area and you don’t go to the other areas of the government, then whatever you are trying to contain in one area, and to be able to control in one area, will just move to the other area.
So what we are saying is that when we pass the FOI bill it should include all areas of the government, particularly also the local government units. So sa pamamagitan ng FOI maibibigay po natin sa taumbayan ang kagustuhan nilang mas maintindihan ang kanilang gobyerno. (Through the FOI, we can give the people what they want, which is to better understand their government.)
Thus, the true value of FOI is not only that it will prevent graft and corruption, more importantly it will teach our people to participate and get involved – makialam sa palakad ng kanilang gobyerno (to be involved in government affairs).
A strong FOI empowers the people, it gives them knowledge, it allows them to make informed judgment. Let us embolden every Filipino to be true stakeholders of government, they should not just have an opinion about what’s happening, they should have information about what’s really happening.
Now, Thomas Jefferson once said when people fear the government, there is tyranny but when the government fears the people there is liberty and again the FOI is our ammunition against graft and corruption and it will keep our government leaders on their toes.
Watch her speech below: