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Freedom of Information is useful here in the UK — we sometimes argue it’s vital. But in countries like Uganda, where the public sector has been rated among the most corrupt in the world, it takes on even more importance.

It’s perhaps surprising to learn that Uganda’s FOI act, implemented in 2006, is — on paper at least — a pretty robust one, aiming to promote transparency and allow citizens to hold authorities accountable. In fact, Uganda is one of 20 of the 50+ African countries to have such a law.

Hurdles to information

But that’s where the story becomes more complex, because, while the intentions may be good, the money to implement citizens’ rights under FOI is lacking. It wasn’t until 2011 that the government started allocating funds to implementation of the act, and by then it was a textbook example of “too little, too late”. Up and down the country, communication officers were recruited but not trained in their duties. Gilbert Sendugwa, from Ask Your Government Uganda, says that the gaps are particularly visible at the local government level.

What’s more, while ministers may have helped usher the law through parliament, they certainly aren’t sticking to the letter of it. Section 43 of the act states that ministers must make an annual report to parliament to show how the act is being implemented, and to justify those requests which have been turned down. No such report has ever been made, by any minister.

And then there are the practical hurdles. Uganda’s FOI act requires requesters to use a specific form, but this form was unavailable in many places. Even if you could get hold of a copy, it meant traveling to the public office to pick it up and fill it in, then returning to get the response. Not everyone had the time or the money to spare.

Such are the factors that can turn an act, implemented with apparently good intentions, into something unhelpful for the populace.

Enter AFIC, enter Alaveteli

Just as Uganda’s FOI law was coming into practice in 2006, the African Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) was formed. This group of 30 civil society organisations from 16 countries in Africa have been promoting the right of access to information held by public authorities ever since.

When they heard about mySociety’s Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, it seemed like a great opportunity to salve at least one of Uganda’s woes: by putting the request process online, there’d be no problem with paper forms. The FOI process would be available from wherever there was an internet connection.

It would even help ministers to comply with Article 43, since the data would be readily accessible in digital form.

Money matters

At the time, mySociety was offering help in implementing Alaveteli sites to select partners, and AFIC was a successful applicant.

Gilbert says that working together was relatively simple:

“The collaboration of the leadership and technical teams of both AFIC and mySociety worked quite well. We didn’t find challenges defining the problem and solution statement: division of labour was made and there was mutual accountability going forward.”

But of course, once the site has launched, funding can be an issue, and that’s just what has happened here:

“Funding has been a challenge.

“Currently there are two people who administer the site as just one part of their jobs. The lack of resources constrains what we can do, as no-one is fully dedicated to the project, yet more work needs to be done.”

Justus Ashaba is a volunteer on Ask Your Government Uganda. His work covers technical development, administration, and user support, vividly illustrating the range of tasks that an Alaveteli site needs, even once it’s up and running:

“I do technical assistance for the portal. I coordinated the customisation of the Alaveteli theme; I respond to emails sent to our shared email address; I add or update the contacts for authorities whenever necessary; I manage incoming and outgoing emails for target requests or requests of interest.”

According to their plan, by now AFIC had wanted to have added all Uganda’s authorities to the site, and conducted training of both officials and activists so that they understood how to use the site — but the funding situation has not allowed for this.

“We also planned to conduct regular analyses and compile reports to support engagements as well as knowledge learning and sharing.”

They’d had a plan to extend reach to offline communities, too, simply by placing a box into which citizens could post their requests. These would then be added to the site by volunteers, who would also feed the responses fed back to the requesters:

“We planned to create a link between online and an offline system that uses boxes, especially in communities where the internet is not widely used or with specific target groups. Ongoing feedback sessions with officials are needed, as this is what really motivates them. These needs remain unmet and are certainly constraining realisation of the right to information.”

Looking at impact

Despite these setbacks, there have been some good results. Prime among them is the fact that now it’s much harder for the government to do anything that might be perceived as corrupt: now that questions can be asked in public, the culture of corruption might persist, but the desire to commit acts of corruption has been lessened.

Gilbert can rattle off other benefits, too:

“More advocacy was done for Access to Information, government communication officers were reminded of their obligations and the relationship between government authorities and civil society who advocate for FOI was strengthened.

“The portal has also helped to assess the responsiveness of different authorities; and this will be used to inform next actions towards FOI advocacy in using the internet to give citizens access to information.

“A number of authorities are committed in responding, while the citizens who know about it are increasingly using the platform.”

There have been tangible results from specific requests:

“Our initial finding was that there was a governance problem in ways in which transfers for teachers and school head teachers were managed. An information request that we filed through the platform ourselves initiated the process that resulted in teacher transfer policy, and the transfer of almost 1,250 teachers.”

But ask Gilbert whether any big or interesting stories have been revealed through the site, and his answer is surprising:

“In our view, every request has its own strength and uniqueness. If it gets procedures followed, or policy developed or corruption averted… all these are important for individuals to realise their rights.

“Recently, we see people asking for decisions around recruitment in security services, indicating an information gap but also an opportunity to fill it.”

Gilbert is talking about requests such as this one — not what would count as a standard FOI request in the UK; indeed, it would probably be returned unanswered, with a statement to say that the information was already in the public domain.

But, as he says, if the information is published as a result, and if, as has happened here, it is accessed over 2,000 times, then that is a sign that the site is satisfying a need.