PAIA MANUALS – WHY IT'S NEEDED AND WHY IT SHOULD BE COMPREHENSIVE
Opinion piece by Brendan Slade, OUTA project manager
In OUTA’s line of work, the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) and requests for access to information are a significant part of our toolkit in pursuit of transparency and ultimately accountability. The right of access to information is a Constitutional right, after all. But it is only meaningful if effect can be given to it, and if the PAIA Act is adhered to. From our own recent research, only about 25% of institutions of education institutions operating under the Department of Higher Education have PAIA manuals. This is very concerning for transparency and accountability.
Access to information is a concept that most of us take for granted. It doesn’t really affect our daily lives – until it does. It is a right enshrined in our Constitution, so this means that it is guaranteed, not so?
Sadly, the right of access to information only enjoys the status of being a Constitutional right in theory. Although it exists in practice, it is only meaningful if effect can be given to it.
Our constitution provides for a mechanism through legislation – in other words, a law – that gives effect to the right of access to information. This is called the Promotion of Access to Information Act (or PAIA, as it is commonly known), which became law in 2000.
I am by no means implying that PAIA has failed in its purpose – quite the contrary. What has failed abysmally in fostering a culture of transparency and accountability, however, is government. In fact, government has dropped the ball in actively promoting a society in which South Africans have effective access to information.
When was the last time we saw a government campaign advocating for transparency?
While the country finds itself in a peculiar situation, recovering from COVID-19, an era of state capture and perpetual stagnation in holding the corrupt to account, an attempt by government to be somewhat open about the goings on will certainly instil some confidence among those ascending on the proverbial palace with pitch forks and torches.
The first step for our government institutions is to show their genuine willingness to be open and not merely revert the age-old excuse of a matter being sub judice or privileged. The merits of their excuse may be dealt with in a request for access to information process itself and should not be thrown around before a request is made.
Although civil society is presumably quite well versed in the PAIA process, the public is not. But just like one is often saved by the manual when using an intricate electrical appliance for the first time, a PAIA manual could clarify the process.
PAIA manuals are compulsory and so important that not having one is sanctionable by the Information Regulator, yet we hardly read anything in the media relating to public bodies and their lack of having PAIA manuals.
When looking for information from a company or state department, this manual on how to utilise PAIA and submit a request to a particular public body is nowhere to be seen is most instances, leaving the potential requester staring at a brick wall. This is usually followed by abandonment of a pursuit for information, as we do with most government procedures. Of course, one may enquire from the public body directly on what process to follow as well as the details of the information officer and required forms (though this should be in the PAIA manual in any event). However, should the information required be so urgent that any further delays would cause severe prejudice (i.e. the public body receives a tip off and the information is destroyed), the right to access to information is reduced to a mere principle.
In OUTA’s line of work, PAIA and requests for access to information are a significant part of our toolkit in pursuit of transparency and ultimately accountability. During our investigations, we recently zoomed in on PAIA compliance by the Department of Higher Education, Training and Innovation. The results were shocking: only 25% of education institutions operating under the Department of Higher Education have PAIA manuals, at least PAIA manuals that are easily accessible.
We cannot fathom what the compliance rate across the country could look like. However, we want to establish what those statistics are. Even if the results of our study yield high rates of compliance, 90% compliance is not satisfactory in an open and democratic society.
The OUTA team will embark on crunching the numbers and providing the Information Regulator with our findings. We believe that the Information Regulator has what it takes to hold non-compliant public bodies to account and foster a culture of transparency and accountability.