I crave your indulgence to stand on existing protocols and thank you for that kind introduction.
Let me firstly bring you greetings on behalf of my family, recognizing the presence of my dear husband Cllr. Meo D. Beyan, Assistant Minister of Justice for Economic Affairs, my team from the Civil Service Reform Directorate and in my own name as the Director for Civil Service Reforms at the CSA, driving change in the public sector since 2014.
I stand here today, very humbled, pleased and delighted to have received this invitation to serve as the Guest Speaker for this all important occasion marking the Graduation Ceremony of the Freedom Of Information (FOI) diploma and Certificate program, facilitated by the Liberia Institute of Public Administration (LIPA); launched by the Carter Center last year with support from the European Union, aimed at increasing transparency in the public sector through the adoption and application of the FOI curricula in key public training institutes.
It is indeed wonderful to join you in celebrating this wonderful occasion. Congratulations!
By now, most of you if not all of you, have listened to great keynote speakers before me, who encouraged you to chase your goals and put your learning into action. I may give you a similar message because it is very essential to put into practice what you have learned. But, allow me to go a bit further to simply speak about “your responsibility”. How can you be a torchbearer in the 21st century when it comes to the application of FOI in the public sector no matter the position you currently hold in your institution?
I believe that you will be eager to ask me, how can I be a torchbearer in the 21st century as a Public Sector employee? But before we get to the specifics, let me remind you about how far we have come since Liberia enacted the FOI in 2010.
If not among the first, Liberia became the first West African nation to enact a Freedom of Information (FOI) law which guarantees easy access to information for all members of the public who want to understand the activities and budgets of Government, and all bodies supported by public funds.
According to the Preamble of the FOI Act, access to information is indispensable to genuine democracy and good governance and no limitation shall be placed on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries. The right of access to information is therefore a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the Constitution of Liberia. FOI laws or regulations have been passed in over 90 countries around the world, with an even greater number enjoying a constitutional right to information.
As a way of recording progress, the establishment of an Independent Information Commission (IIC) in Liberia is the first commendable attempt to ensure that this fundamental right is enforced and adhered to by the government. Today, we are here to further celebrate this unique occasion, which deepens the strategy to adopt and apply the law. There is an urgent need to continue turning the FOI from an idea enshrined in law into a normal, effective practice that enables ordinary people to hold their government to account and for Public Servants to seek more transparent ways of performing their duties, so that providing information to the Public cannot be a difficult process. I must say, your graduation today takes this agenda to a whole new level—and I am so happy that you are part of this history.
Have you heard this familiar statement, when you walk into a Government Department and ask for certain information? Don’t ask me I’m just (, Civil Servant, administrative staff, Police officer). Honestly, in the 21st century, when you talk about access to information and Freedom of Information, no Public worker should be hesitant when asked about public information although they must adhere to their institution policy on how to report and communicate information. The world is moving ahead. The internet is available, and people are so connected. If you choose not to give out information, people always find a way. The only problem is, when people figured out that you are hiding something, it creates more problem then we anticipate. Hence, we must ensure that we are not ignoring this essential aspect of public life.
Now, think about this: whether you work in Central Government administration as a Civil Servant, in the legislature in non-elected capacities or as a Police Officer in the security sector, do you think you have a responsibility for the application of the FOI?
Let me quickly draw your attention to a major misunderstanding about who is accountable to the Public and who is not. Everyone tends to remove themselves from the equation when the going gets tough and it becomes critical. In the Public Administration Literature, there is a blurred line between Civil and Public Administrators. While this differentiation can be made, no matter what functions are performed, ensure that you all are working to meet at the public interest point. This is how you can bring on the touch of the 21st Century to the public Sector—by acting in the public interest.
Finally, let me draw your attention to three important aspects I find essential and how you can make the most out of the knowledge you have acquired during your training.
As you graduate today, remember you have studied a course on Freedom of Information, which means that you have distinguished yourself from the rest of us, not just as an informed citizen who knows what it means to receive and give out public information but as an informed member of the Government to ensure that an FOI culture is built in your institution. Remember the objectives of the course that applies to you, enhancing awareness of new FOI curricula opportunities among public sector leaders and employees;
Secondly, this training falls under the increasing transparency in the Public Sector program agenda. As a graduate of this program, in order to make your institution more transparent, let me draw your attention to the aspect of the ACT that talks about “Automatic Publication”.
In the age of the internet and the nature of Public Offices, it is a fact that institutions may not make available all information on its website maybe because they think it’s too much information but there must be a plan that applies to automatic publication. The FOI Act mandates certain key classes of documents/information be automatically published. The law requires that some information be made available to the public without the need to file a request for information. With this, I believe that as a government, when we put public information out first, it tells everyone that we have nothing to hide and that we understand our roles as Public Servants.
With information, people can more fully participate in public life, help set priorities for government spending, understand decisions taken in their name, and hold leaders to account. This is also true for vulnerable populations, including women and minorities.
Equally important, building a culture of access to information is good for the government. It helps us to be more effective and efficient, to have the necessary information to make good and equitable decisions, and to properly apply scarce resources.
Lastly, as an FOI graduate, we expect you to be an ethical leader, by not wrongly applying the exemption principles of the FOI. The Liberian FOI act indicates that a document, information, or record is exempted from public access ONLY if the release of the information would cause injury or substantial harm to:
National security, defense, or international relations
While every good law carefully states any exemption therein, ethical leaders do not misuse this exemption leverage. When part of the document has exempt information, only that part should be excluded from disclosure and the rest of the document released to you. Also, public agencies and private entities cannot just claim that the information you want falls under an exemption, is confidential, or secret. They must also show that the harm of disclosing the information is greater than the public interest in knowing the information.
As a 21st Century public servant, freeing government information is expected to create transparent and accountable government. It brings forth democratic and inclusive government institutions that work for the people. Inclusivity, transparency and accountability are expected to address sustainable development challenges and democracy deficits.
I leave you finally, with a challenge to build an FOI friendly public Sector and to be agents of change in your respective institutions, remembering that key characteristics of a 21st century Public Servant, are knowing that, it is not a choice to make public information public, it is an obligation, it is a right of people to know and have access.
Congratulations once more on your new journey. You have indeed added value to your public sector portfolio!
God bless you!