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Bureaucrats wearying of new Info Law tasks

Eight months after a Freedom of Access to Information law began requiring state employees to disclose non-classified documents to the public, bureaucrats claim the measure is being abused by businesses and students, and causing overwork in the civil service.
A report on how the information law is working in practice was tabled by Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik at a regular cabinet meeting August 15. The report, which is to guide cabinet's promised revision of the law, suggested among other things that state employees be given twice as much time to answer public requests for information, and that the salaries of state officials, including the heads of huge state-owned firms like gas utility SPP, remain secret.

Eight months after a Freedom of Access to Information law began requiring state employees to disclose non-classified documents to the public, bureaucrats claim the measure is being abused by businesses and students, and causing overwork in the civil service.

A report on how the information law is working in practice was tabled by Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik at a regular cabinet meeting August 15. The report, which is to guide cabinet's promised revision of the law, suggested among other things that state employees be given twice as much time to answer public requests for information, and that the salaries of state officials, including the heads of huge state-owned firms like gas utility SPP, remain secret.

Ftáčnik's findings met consternation among free-information advocates and businesses, who feared the cabinet might be back-tracking on its own promises to create greater 'transparency' in how the state sector works.

But the Education Minister argued after the government meeting that he had simply been trying to bring the information law guidelines into line with other legislative rules, such as those protecting private data like salaries.

"This is not Ftáčnik trying to restrict the giving of information" he said, adding that the law had "increased transparency and democracy in the activities [of state bodies and ministries]... increased the quality of public administration services, and improved relations between the civil service and the public." He maintained, however, that changes needed to be made.

Under Ftáčnik's guidelines, deadlines for delivering information to the public should be prolonged from 10 days to 30, while in the case of more complex requests, time limits should be pushed up from 20 days to up to two months. The change was necessary, the report concluded, because of conflicts with another law, the Administrative Procedures Act, which gave state officials different deadlines for answering requests.

The report claimed that the public had been taking advantage of the shorter information law times to avoid longer waits and higher fees for property and customs documents, for example.

"Sometimes people ask for information [under the information law] because they want to avoid the [higher] payments set in the Administrative Procedure Act, such as reports on available land for construction, various lists, charts, and so on," the report stated.

Finally, Ftáčnik's report proposed that the salaries of state officials and heads of state-owned companies not be made public, citing the opinion of Pavol Husár, cabinet plenipotentiary for the protection of personal data, that "the wages of [state] functionaries are personal and should not be made public without the consent of the person concerned."

Perplexed

The cabinet pronounced the information law, which took effect January 1, 2001, as one of the pillars of its national anti-corruption fight, launched by Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda at the end of February 2000.

Many of the law's supporters said they couldn't understand why the law now needed to erect new barriers to access to information, especially as it seemed to be working relatively well in practice.

A study carried out by the Government Office on the performance of state bodies in meeting public requests for information in the first six months of 2001 found that of the total 1,775 requests for information, state institutions had met 1,599, or 90%, within the 10-day deadline, and 220 requests, or another 6.3%, within the 20-day limit.

"Given that everything is working well, it's tough to understand why prolonging the deadlines should be required," said Tomáš Kamenec, a lawyer with the Citizen and Democracy (OaD) non-governmental organisation which has monitored the application of the information law.

Business people were also concerned that extending the deadlines could endanger business deals. "Foreign partners may require certain information before they decide to sign deals with local companies," said Štefan Janček, head of the Berndorf-Sandrik cutlery producer in central Slovakia's Hodruša-Hámre.

"It's in my best interest to provide that information as soon as possible, and the information law is an instrument that should give me that access. But if deadlines are prolonged, my potential partner might say, 'Thanks, but I can't wait', and contact somebody else."

Regarding the claim that the information law was in conflict with other legislation, Kamenec said the state should prefer whichever law served the public faster and cheaper. "The Administrative Procedures Act is an obsolete law from 1967 and should be updated anyway," he noted.

Ftáčnik's report did deal with the issue of efficiency, but came to a different conclusion - that the aim of the state to inform citizens was being abused by self-serving groups.

"Recently, the number of citizens/students is increasing who are asking for certain information which they later use in their dissertation papers or diploma theses," the report observed, adding to the list the many business people who request business-related information and thus "use the information law for commercial and similar [business] purposes."

State administration employees explained that the increasing requests for information were keeping them from their regular duties. "I have my own work in the office, and it's sometimes difficult to do everything on time," said a ministry employee who wished to remain anonymous. "Constant requests for information take my attention off my regular work, and then I end up missing my own deadlines."

Kamenec, however, argued that requests for data from students and businesses were "absolutely legitimate" because the salaries of people supplying the information were covered by taxpayers.

"Many of our state bureaucrats are still living in the past," agreed Berndorf-Sandrik's Janček. "They don't want their work routine disturbed by citizens' requests. They're simply not used to working effectively."

Emília Sičáková, head of Transparency International Slovakia anti-corruption watch dog, added that "under the old-style [communist] state administration, bureaucrats weren't accountable to anyone, which is why they are now feeling uncomfortable with the information law. It will take some time before they learn that their job is to serve primarily the public, not themselves."

Despite the criticism of Ftáčnik's report, it is far from certain that its conclusions will be followed to the letter by the cabinet. Ftáčnik's political boss, Democratic Left Party (SDĽ) head and Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš, told the Slovak daily paper Sme, for example, that "the wages [of public servants] are public information at every [state] company. They shouldn't be secret."

Kamenec said he believed the wage provision, at least, stood little chance of being included in the revised law which is to be ready by March 2002 and prepared in co-operation with NGOs by Ftáčnik, Interior Minister Ivan Šimko and head of the Government Office Tibor Tóth.

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