Access to Public Information in Georgia 2020

News | Good Governance | Pressing Issues | Analysis | Report 1 June 2021

Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) has been monitoring access to public information in Georgia since 2010. IDFI systematic monitoring has made a significant contribution in identifying key trends and problems in access to public information, implementation of effective public control mechanisms, and development of public sector accountability and open governance.

 

In the year 2020, given the crisis situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, the importance of access to public information became especially clear. Against the background of the pandemic, the risks of opaque and irrational management of budget funds increased significantly, which was due to the existing challenges related to access to information, significant increase in funding received from abroad, procurement without tender procedures, and more.

 

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the following major challenges pertaining to the restrictions on access to public information were in evidence:

 

Challenge N1 – Legislative restriction on the disclosure of public information - Beginning March 21, 2020, a state of emergency was declared on the entire territory of Georgia, as part of which certain rights guaranteed by the Constitution were restricted. Among them, the deadlines for issuing public information were suspended. The suspension also extended to cases where the public information was requested prior to the declaration of the state of emergency and the deadline for issuing the information had not yet expired. The state of emergency lasted until May 22, and as a result access to public information was suspended for 2 months in 2020.

 

 Challenge N2 – Complications arising due to the pandemic - As part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a part of public servants switched to remote work mode. Consequently, the question of how effectively public institutions would be able to coordinate the proper process and ensure access to information in such working conditions became a risk. Additionally, the possible spread of the virus in various agencies, the direct involvement of a particular agency in the fight against the pandemic, and other similar factors threatened the ability to mobilize the necessary labor resources needed to guarantee access to information.

 

Challenge N3 - Dishonest attitude of public institutions - The situation created by the coronavirus pandemic may have become an additional motive for the unscrupulous restriction of public information among the public institutions with a lack of accountability.  

 

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, IDFI monitored access to information for public institutions in 2020. The long-standing practice of recognizing public institutions as the most open or closed agencies helps maintain the high standards of accountability in similar extraordinary situations and promote healthy competition in the public sector.

 

The following report presents an assessment of the state of access to public information in Georgia based on 2020 data. The report also includes an analysis of the trends in the release of public information in 2010-2020 and the rating of access to public information in public institutions.

 

IDFI information accessibility methodology and criteria developed in 2011 were used in compiling the ratings. While compiling the ratings, we used the methodology and criteria for assessing access to information developed in 2011 by IDFI.

 

Key Findings

 

- Out of 6,258 requests sent to 285 public institutions in 2020, IDFI received a response to 5,000 (80%);

 

- Out of 6,258 requests sent to public institutions in 2020, IDFI received information within the prescribed 10-day period in 3,043 cases;

 

- In 2020, a significant part of public institutions (30%) left unanswered or denied requests for the contracts with the persons employed in the positions of advisor, expert, or consultant. The second most closed information was related to the mileage and average fuel consumption rates of vehicles assigned to public officials;

 

- In 2020, the instances of unanswered requests related to the fight against the pandemic, which would understandably be of high public interest, were particularly problematic. For example, copies of ordinances issued by the government, measures taken to promote tourism, etc.

 

- In 2020, by category of institutions, the highest percentage of requests were left unanswered or denied by state-owned LLCs and NNLEs (74% unanswered, denied);the highest rate of complete responses (85% complete) was observed in the group of public institutions that includes: the Government and Ministries of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, the Government of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, and the Administration of South Ossetia.

 

- In 2020, 19 public institutions issued public information in full and within a period of 10 days (among these were: the Office of the Public Defender, the National Statistics Office, the Office of the State Inspector);

 

- In 2020, IDFI recognized the Administration of the Government of Georgia and the system of the Ministry of Justice as a whole as the most closed public institutions;

 

- In 2020, in addition to the agencies within the systems of the Administration of the Government and the Ministry of Justice, another 13 institutions (including the State Treasury) were found to have left all IDFI requests without response;

 

- Among the central public institutions, the highest rates of access to public information were observed in the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture of Georgia - 92.33%, and the lowest indicators were observed in the Ministry of Justice (5.45%) and the Ministry of Finance (12.91%);

 

- In 2020, 10 out of 14 central public institutions in Georgia had a worse indicator of access to information as compared to the previous year. Among these were the Ministry of Finance (-45.7%), the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development (-35.84%), the Ministry of Internal Affairs (-30.26%), the Administration of the President (-26.18%);

 

 

- The rate of responses received from public institutions in 2020 (80%) was the lowest since 2013;

 

- In 2020, the percentage of complete responses decreased by 6% compared to the previous year, while the percentage of unanswered requests increased by 4%;

 

- In 2020, the rates of fully answered (47%) and unanswered requests (41%) of the agencies subordinated to the ministries were the worst in the last 10 years;

 

- For the first time since 2012, the number of responses that missed the 10-day deadline exceeded the number of responses that were issued in accordance to the deadline. The complication of the public sector work process during the coronavirus pandemic (switching to remote working conditions, engaging in pandemic control, etc.) was a significant contributing factor to this.

 

Conclusion

 

According to the results of the monitoring conducted by IDFI in 2020, the quality of access to public information in the country has decreased again compared to the previous year. The deteriorating trend of the past few years was further exacerbated by the crisis situation in the country that arose due to the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, for a number of agencies, the changing working conditions resulting from the pandemic (remote work mode, involvement in the fight against the pandemic, etc.) have been found to be an impediment to the proper provision of access to information. As a result, in 2020, the rate of unanswered requests, as well as responses in violation of the timeframes set by law, has increased significantly. For the first time since 2012, the cases of breaches of the 10-day deadline in 2020 exceeded the percentage of timely responses.

 

Restricting access to information from public institutions that have a special role to play in promoting democratic values in the country, as well as in ensuring transparency in the fight against the pandemic, should be seen as a particularly problematic aspect of the situation in 2020. For example, the Administration of the Government of Georgia, which is one of the main coordinating bodies in the fight against the pandemic, should be an uninterrupted source of information for citizens. The system of the Ministry of Justice, the main task of which is to promote the development of national legislation in accordance with international standards and to strengthen the rule of law in the country, unfortunately shows disrespect for freedom of speech and expression and neglects the obligations of public institutions under the law in a democratic state. The Ministry of Finance and its subordinate entities, which are supposed to guarantee financial transparency in the public sector, especially in the light of the crisis created during the pandemic, themselves restrict the release of public information related to the management of public finances.

 

The practice of recent years clearly demonstrates the improper attitude towards access to information among state-owned LLCs and NNLEs. Although these agencies often exercise public legal authority and manage public finances, in the case of requests sent by IDFI, they either leave the requests without a response or explain that they are not an administrative body and are therefore not subject to the obligation to provide public information. In this regard, the strategic dispute between IDFI and NNLE Media Academy in 2020 was of particular strategic importance, as the agency was instructed to provide the requested information as a result of the dispute.

 

Despite the existing challenges, the rate of responses to letters sent in 2020 (80%) still maintains the 80% critical threshold established after 2014, which is largely due to the high accountability of individual public institutions. Specifically, public institutions such as the National Statistics Office, the Public Defender's Office, the Office of the State Inspector, and others have maintained the best rate of access to public information for a number of years (including in times of crisis) and duly fulfill their statutory public information obligations. Unfortunately, the practice of low accountability established by other institutions (e.g., the Ministry of Justice, the Administration of the Government of Georgia, the State Treasury, etc.) over the years has had a negative impact on the overall rating of access to information in the public sector in Georgia and significantly hinders the process of improving access to information in the country.

 

     See the rating of public institutions here: www.foi.idfi.ge

 

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This material has been financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida. Responsibility for the content rests entirely with the creator. Sida does not necessarily share the expressed views and interpretations.

 

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