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Training Public Officials

Right to information laws impose duties of openness on all officials working in public offices which are covered by the law. For the law to be implemented, all officials who work at a public organisation need to be committed to openness - because they are the ones who will create and manage the information that the public will be requesting. If they don't understand their duties properly or if they are not committed to implementing the law, then its effective operation will become more difficult.

Recognising how important it is that all officials covered by the law understand it and support it, experience has shown that one of the most important activities that needs to be undertaken when preparing to implement any RTI law is to provide training to all officials. Section 26 (d) of the Central Act specifically places an obligation on the Central and State Governments to provide training to public officials. As a priority, all Public Information Officers (PIOs) and Appellate Authorities need to be fully trained on what their responsibilities are under the law, how to manage applications/appeals and of course, how to apply and interpret the law.

As the front-line officers who are responsible for implementing the law, PIOs must have a complete understanding of the law so that they can answer questions from both the public and other officers. More specifically, they should be aware of their duty to advise and assist information requesters. Likewise, they should be fully aware that they have a right to call on any officer for assistance, and that officer has a duty to help them. They should be given guidance on who they approach if they are unsure whether to release information. They should also be given assistance to implement the law's proactive disclosure provisions.

Appellate Authorities should also be given training because they are the officers who will be responsible for overseeing the work of the PIOs. They need to know what the PIOs duties are, so they can assess whether they have been properly discharged. Appellate Authorities will also need to be given in-depth training on the specific provisions in the law, in particular the exemptions provisions, because they are the ones who will be called on to settle disputes. They need to understand when the exemptions can and can't be applied, to make sure that PIOs are not unfairly/improperly rejecting applications.

There is already some experience at the State level of developing and implementing effective RTI training programmes for officials. In Maharashtra for example, in 2003, YASHADA, the government training institution, began implementing a major RTI training programme around the State RTI law. YASHADA trained all PIOs and Appellate Authorities and are now rolling out training for other officials throughout the State. In Madhya Pradesh, the Prashasan Academy, the government training institution, is providing training for all District Collectors on right to information as well.

Notably, training should be ongoing. As the law is implemented, problems will be identified and these will need to be discussed with staff and solutions found. Over time, staff might become unclear about their duties under the RTI Act or have questions about implementation, so they should be given regular refresher training to make sure they all know what to do. The training programme should also be regularly reviewed to ensure that it takes into account suggestions from the public, the State's RTI Council(s) (if any) and staff.

International experience has shown that training for public officials can involve both Government and NGOs. In South Africa, training of information officers and deputy information officers has been carried out by various organisations including the South Africa Human Rights Commission, the Justice College and the Open Democracy Advice Centre (an NGO). In Jamaica, the Access to Information Unit set up by the Government, has conducted a series of training workshops in conjunction with the Records and Archives Department of Government and their Management Institute for National Development. In England and Scotland, their Information Commissioners (independent offices set up to oversee the Act and handle appeals) have been conducting training and producing guidance notes to assist organisations to prepare for implementing the law.

If you want to develop your own training modules for public officials on RTI, the following generic training module is a useful place to start:

Please click on the link to the Central RTI Act to read the detailed provisions contained in the law. Please click on the link to CHRI's State RTI pages to find out more about relevant rules and implementation in your specific State.