Author:Bashir, Mohsin


In the last fifty years, the right of citizens to access information pertaining to public matters has become globally recognized with more than a hundred countries formally adopting Right to Information (RTI) laws (Freedominfo.org, 2017). Proponents claim that citizen right to information is not only required to ensure transparency, accountability and responsiveness of the government but should be considered a fundamental right in contemporary society (Roberts, 2001; Bovens, 2002; Ackerman & Sandoval, 2006; Mendel, 2008). Critics, however, argue that while the initial adopters of RTI laws were indeed motivated by these legitimate public concerns for the domestic civil society, in many cases these laws are introduced by political actors not to achieve good governance for citizens but for their own personal motives (Berliner 2014) and to primarily appease international audiences (David-Barrett & Okamura 2016).

These divergent views on RTI laws have led to increased interest in assessment of their implementation and impact. While there have been a few cross-sectional studies comparing the association between RTI laws and indicators of good governance in different countries (Banisar, 2006; OPSJ, 2006; Islam, 2006; Relly & Sabharwal, 2009), they are of limited help in establishing the impact of RTI laws because of methodological and data limitations. Similarly, with notable exception of India (Roberts, 2010), the few studies that have analyzed the implementation of RTI laws within a single country have either primarily focused on technical aspects of RTI laws like usage rates and response times or have relied on secondary data about political attitudes and administrative context of these laws (Bookman & Amparan, 2009; White, 2007; Worthy, 2010). A consistent finding of these different lines of inquiry has been that RTI laws have had a limited impact because of significant limitations in policy design, political support, bureaucratic inertia and knowledge dissemination (Ackerman & Sandoval, 2006; Hazell & Worthy, 2010; Roberts, 2010). However, context-specific primary research that captures more qualitative aspects of the implementation of RTI laws remains scarce.

Stubbs & Snell (2014) argue that comparative Freedom of Information (FOI) studies need to move past one-fits-all analysis. The recent proliferation of FOI laws in various countries demand a redefinition of Freedom of Information in terms of what it means and how can it be applied in the context of each country. Calland and Bentley (2013) further argue that both the "conceptual confusion" as to what kind of rights the FOI represents and the "absence of robust methodology" are to blame. A call-to-action is, therefore, put out for the academic community to develop methodologies to analyze the effectiveness of FOI laws. However, with the exception of India, most research on RTI laws has primarily focused on western developed countries with limited focus on eastern developing countries which have a different administrative and political context, and where the globalization related reasons for adoption of RTI laws may be more significant.

To address these limitations, in this article, we empirically analyze the implementation of the RTI law in Punjab, Pakistan. Specifically, we study the experiences of citizens as they try to access information from different government departments. Our research suggests that the RTI law of Punjab incurs a disproportionate administrative burden in the form of high compliance, learning and cognitive costs on citizens. More importantly, a combination of lack of political interest, bureaucratic inertia and low local demand suggest that the RTI law is merely a ceremonial law with limited interest in its effective implementation.

In doing so, this article makes two broad contributions: First, our findings support the observation made by Relly and Sabharwal (2009) and Hazell and Worthy (2010) that, in many cases, RTI laws are "paper laws" that are introduced for their symbolic value. In the present case, apart from the political capital gained from symbolic adoption of the RTI law, there doesn't seem to have been any long-term motivation on behalf of the government for the law to be meaningfully implemented.

Second, our research indicates that in cases like the present one where the policy makers do not provide the required financial and human resources for a new policy to succeed, limited implementation of policy by frontline workers may not be an evidence of their resistance or deviance from official policy. In fact, in such cases, the classic interpretation of street-level agency might be misleading as it allows the policy makers and top management to not only get political capital from passing legislations and policies but also shift the blame of limited implementation of policies on terms like "bureaucratic inertia" and "resistance" (Ackerman & Sandoval, 2006; Roberts, 2010)

Rest of this article is organized as follows: First, we briefly review previous research on implementation of RTI laws highlighting its salient findings and limitations. We then discuss our research context and methods. That is followed by a discussion of our main findings. Finally, we elaborate the main insights of our research and discuss their implications for design and evaluation of RTI laws.


Starting from the United States Freedom of Information Act in 1966, a global revolution of sorts has taken place in public access to information pertaining to the business of the state. The idea that citizens have a right to access information related to all matters of public importance is now formally accepted and legally adopted in more than a hundred countries. This rapid adoption of RTI laws around the world has taken place at the same time as the increase in dissatisfaction with governments around the world (Nye, 1997; Nye, Zelikow & King, 1997). This increasing dissatisfaction has been largely a result of limited impact of postwar welfare programs in western developed countries that could not reduce rising social inequality (Ackerman & Sandoval, 2006). The failure of these programs led to widespread perceptions of red tape and corruption in government departments and growing public demand to know about the different ways in which their tax money was being spent to ensure the public functionaries could be held accountable.

RTI laws were enacted to address these concerns; that is why, proponents of RTI laws claim that legally accepting citizens' right to information is an important yardstick to assess transparency and public accountability of any regime. As multiple researchers (Relly & Sabharwal, 2009; Hazell & Worthy, 2010) have noted, the initial motivation for adoption of RTI laws was primarily national, political and administrative concerns: RTI laws increased legitimacy of governments and accountability of public servants. However, over time, the motives changed from national administrative considerations to more economic and global concerns, especially in the developing countries.

In an era of increasing dependence on international financial institutions that required government transparency, RTI laws gradually became an easy way for regimes around the world to comply with such expectations of international organizations like the World Bank (Relly & Sabharwal, 2009). This was coupled with the increasing competition between developing countries in the last quarter of the twentieth century to attract international investment. As the outsourcing and globalization movements gained momentum, RTI laws were used to present an investment conducive climate to international companies and investors. Finally, international human and democratic rights organizations influence the perceptions of governments around the world. Most of these organizations--like the United Nations, Transparency International and the European Court of Human Rights--consider right to information to be a fundamental human right and RTI laws as an important indicator of accountability, openness, and responsiveness of the government. Consequently, governments around the world have an ever-increasing incentive to promulgate RTI laws (Snell, 2006). This has prompted careful observers to declare that we are witnessing a global right to information movement (Roberts, 2006; Snell, 2006)

The Right to Information Revolution: Expectations versus Reality

While the promulgation of RTI laws has always been accompanied by much fanfare and international recognition, recent research is beginning to highlight critical limitations of this global revolution of sorts. Critics argue that introduction of these laws is not always done with positive intentions. For example, in an insightful study, Berliner (2014) explained how domestic politics plays a crucial role in the adoption of transparency laws. Although political actors have reason to resist RTI laws owing to the increased scrutiny they bring about in the local system, under high uncertainty, "political actors are willing to constrain themselves in order to constrain their opponents" [p. 490]. In case of politically competitive environments, the ruling government has an impending fear of losing public office to opposition parties in the near future. Therefore, existing public office holders have an incentive to institutionalize transparency as it allows them to make credible public commitments and also guarantees them future access to public information (Berliner, 2014).

David-Barrett & Okamura (2016) on the other hand, work out an entirely different theory to explain the irony that although transparency leads to greater accountability, oftentimes corruption-prone countries end up signing for transparency and thereby greater scrutiny. Their 'norm diffusion' theory suggests that states around the world initially signed up for transparency to stand out of the crowd as it...

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