6 Oct 2011

Open government in Tanzania - what are the priorities?

Tz govt commitment to the
OGP (click to enlarge)
The recent news that the Tanzanian government has committed to joining the Open Government Partnership is a positive move by the government. It deserves civil society and media support. The specific commitment - to prepare an Action Plan on open government by March 2012 - is challenging, but achievable if work starts now. 

This has got me thinking. What actions could the government take that would have a positive impact on open government immediately? I've come up with some options, and would love to know what you think.

VijanaFM suggest that e-government should be a priority - that policies, reports, speeches, etc. should be put on Ministry websites as a matter of course. Since these documents are prepared on computers, soft copies must be available, so why not put them online? Some ministries do - the Ministry of Water website is a good example that was rightly praised in the excellent recent report (pdf) by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and the Bunge website does a good job as well with making Hansard and high-level budget data available. Other ministries don't. (There are times when I've felt that some government websites addresses should end stop.tz rather than go.tz.).

And this could easily go further than making essentially text-based documents available and put whole datasets online. Kenya has done this recently, publishing 160 datasets at opendata.go.ke, so why not Tanzania? Just in the water sector - which Daraja is most familiar with - there are several databases that could be shared: Waterpoint Mapping, EWURA's Urban Utility Database, Water Resource Management data, the ministry's contract management system. So, an open-data platform for Tanzanian government data is option 1

But with only around 2% of Tanzanians online, this option could be described as elitist. It would help researchers, academics, journalists, students and activists, but the vast majority of Tanzanians would be left out. I'm not saying it shouldn't happen, particularly as journalists and activists can act as intermediaries, accessing, interpreting and popularising information for a wider audience. But we should also look for ways of making government data accessible to those without internet access as well. 

An Indian-style right to information law would be one way of doing this. This has proved to be a very powerful tool for citizens and citizens' groups to find out what government is doing in their name - over 40,000 applications for information were filed in the first year. And a similar law has been previously suggested in Tanzania, with a proposed law put forward by the Media Council of Tanzania and HakiElimu, among others. The process started some time ago and has stalled, but could very usefully be restarted. So passing the proposed right to information law is option 2

But what about a "quick-win", something of immediate and practical value to large numbers of Tanzanians? How about the President, or somebody else with suitable seniority, publicly sends a circular to all government ministries, departments and agencies, including local government right down to the level of a village or school, saying that the default response to any request for information from a member of the public, journalist or civil society group should be to provide that information.

At the moment, despite the constitutional protections for the right to information, that is not the case. Ask for a simple piece of information and you will be told "nyaraka za serikali hazitolewi ovyo" (government documents are not just handed out to anyone), in the words of one local government official here in Njombe. We asked schools for information on how much capitation grant they had received, and they wouldn't tell us. Asking council education departments for the same information was even harder. 

A circular like this would be a short-term solution while waiting for a right to information law to be passed. It wouldn't guarantee that information would be provided and wouldn't have the weight of law behind it. But it would be quick and easy to carry out and would give citizens greater confidence to ask for information and make it harder for requests to be refused. So option 3 is a high-level directive to all government agencies that requests for information should be granted

I'm sure there are many alternatives, but these are three options to get the discussions started:
  1. An open data platform for Tanzanian government data
  2. A right to information law, based on the MCT proposal
  3. A high-level directive to government agencies that requests for information should be granted
  4. Something else - what?
So tell us, what should be the priority?