Democratisation through RTI act vis-à-vis bureaucracy and perspective building: RTI Fellowship Report Summary
Abstract: This is an abridged version of the report published in 2018 by the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India, written for the RTI fellowship programme 2016 by Sumit Chaturvedi. The link to the full report is available at the end.
To run a representative democracy and to deliver its benefits and entitlements to the public require a massive bureaucratic structure. In other words, modern day democracies both in their modalities and objectives require bureaucratisation. As Max Weber (1993, pp 78) suggests “The progress of bureaucratisation in the state administration itself is a parallel phenomenon of democracy”. He adds, ““democracy” as such is opposed to the “rule” of bureaucracy, in spite and perhaps because of its unavoidable and unintended promotion of bureaucratisation. Under certain conditions, democracy creates obvious ruptures and blockages to bureaucratic organisation.” (Weber 1993: pp 80) This he states is because “bureaucracy, both in business offices and in public service, is a carrier of specific “status” development”, but ““Democracy” reacts precisely against the unavoidable “status” character of bureaucracy.”. (Weber 1993: pp 82)
Democracy’s ideal to establish rule of people on the one hand and the “specific status” accorded to bureaucracy responsible for carrying out the functions of modern democracy produces a unique contradiction. It is this contradiction that gives rise to the need of democratisation even in democracies. One way to achieve this democratisation is to work towards what Weber terms as one of the postulates of political concept of democracy i.e. the “minimisation of the authority of officialdom in the interest of expanding the sphere of influence of “public opinion” as far as practicable.” (Weber 1993: pp 78) He suggests that “The most decisive thing here- indeed it is rather exclusively so- is the levelling of the governed in opposition to the ruling and bureaucratically articulated group, which in its turn may occupy a quite autocratic position, both in fact and in form…”. (Weber 1993: pp 78)
One of the primary requirements for achieving this “levelling” of the governed with the governing is public participation of citizens in issues and procedures of governance and interaction of public with the bureaucracy and engagement in their immediate and not so immediate social and political lives. In other words, participation is important to achieve democratisation. Carole Pateman who has worked extensively to bring out the connection between democratisation and public participation, writes (Pateman 2012, pp. 10) “Participatory democratic theory is an argument about democratisation. That is, the argument is about changes that will make our own social and political life more democratic, that will provide opportunities for individuals to participate in decision-making in their everyday lives as well as in the wider political system. It is about democratising democracy.” She adds, “Citizens have the right to public provision, the right to participate in decision-making about their collective life and to live with authority structures that make such participation possible.” (Pateman 2012, pp. 15)
One of the legislations which deeply impacted upon the levels of participation in Indian context was Right to Information Act, 2005. Even though right to information was always a constitutionally guaranteed right which has been time and again reaffirmed by various Supreme Court judgments, the RTI act 2005 brought a massive change in public perception and guaranteeing of this right.
Not only did the RTI act specify provisions for mandatory proactive disclosure of information (belonging to certain categories) in all government departments through all forms of communication, it also specifies provisions for reactive disclosure of information, i.e. information disclosed as and when demanded by citizens by way of applying for that information with respective departments. Thus, there are many provisions within this act which establish a channel of communication between bureaucracy and the public with an element of undeniable accountability. RTI act provides citizens an opportunity not only to assert their right to be informed but also provides them with a well-established mechanism and framework to participate in the working of democracy.
In this light, it can be asked:
Has the RTI act 2005, made an impact upon democratisation in India vis-à-vis the citizens’ interaction with bureaucracy and building of their perspectives with regards to procedural and deliberative democracy?
There are two important components of this question which reflect two aspects of democratisation. Firstly, it is important to understand the difference in the quality of interaction of public with bureaucracy, from before using the act and after it. Secondly, it is equally important to understand the impact of RTI on the general awareness and knowledge of these individuals regarding matters of governance and administration and concepts of democracy, public policy etc.
The first component reflects the direct participation which is an important aspect of democratisation and the second component reflects the consequential impact of participation which is democratic sensitisation which plays a role in deliberative democracy- a corollary of participatory democracy.
There are two different types of RTI usage- firstly for asking for information for personal reasons such as for addressing personal grievances or concerns or problems and secondly for asking for information for non-personal reasons such as for information required for professional assignments such as in case of journalists, lawyers, researchers etc., for activism, advocacy of public cause or issue or for general enquiries based on inquisitiveness. For this study ten people have been interviewed in the first category and nine people have been interviewed in the second category.
The field for this research is based in two cities- Agra and Delhi. Nine of the respondents who have used RTI act for personal reasons are from Delhi belonging to two slums located in Munirka and Kusumpur Pahadi. These respondents were approached through a citizens’ collective and advocacy group that mainly works with RTI, Satark Nagarik Sangathan. One other respondent in this category works as an information outreach coordinator with this association. Others who have used it for non-personal reasons belong from both Agra and Delhi.
Impact of RTI act on Engagement of Public with Bureaucracy
Most respondents from lower socio-economic backgrounds reported abrasive attitude from the bureaucracy. The most prevalent response was that officials were mostly dismissive or humiliating. In few cases where the officials responded, it was either a very delayed response or a casual one. Those who often contacted government authorities like activists and journalists gave a general perspective on attitude of bureaucracy which mainly constituted lack of transparency and accountability.
Unfortunately experiences of majority of respondents irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds echoed the prevalent general perception about bureaucracy, that it was unresponsive, abrasive and mostly unhelpful. Most of the respondents found it hard for their objectives to be met because of the unhelpful attitude of bureaucracy when they had contacted them before resorting to using the RTI act.
Experience of RTI usage
Much like the experience of interacting with bureaucracy without using RTI, people from slums have a hard time in filing RTIs as well. More than half of all these respondents had faced threats, intimidation and other bullying tactics. A more prevalent problem seems to be delaying or diversionary tactics employed by officials even in the process of accepting RTI applications. This too remains a persistent complaint of the respondents who wished to address personal problems more than those who were addressing non-personal issues.
Yet the respondents persevered and managed to file RTIs. But their problems didn’t stop there. A common experience narrated by most of the respondents who filed RTIs for personal reasons, was the pressure exerted upon them to sign papers absolving the responsible authorities of any wrongdoings in discharge of their duties; wrongdoings that were exposed because of the information obtained through the use of the RTI act.
It is also evident that specific norms laid out in the act such as not having to give reasons to public officials for filing RTIs are flouted. At the same time provisions laid out in section eight that pertain to “public interest” clause, are regularly invoked with vague interpretations in order to avoid giving information asked. Ironically these applications are those which have been filed in wider public interest.
A majority of respondents had to resort to first appeal which shows that the responses to RTI applications or lack of any, is creating dissatisfaction for public at the level of Public Information Officers. As mentioned above respondents’ experience with the first appeal hearings is not ideal with collusion between PIOs and FAAs being a common complaint. Another complaint was the abrasive and condescending attitude that some of the respondents faced during the hearing through which respondents were discouraged to pursue the matter further, sometimes even with threats. As per the respondents the second appeal stage is more effective in getting the resolution that the applicants sought.
Impact of RTI on public-bureaucracy interaction
Most respondents felt that the change that has come through RTI in the relationship between bureaucracy and public, has been felt from the bureaucratic side as they have been forced to be accountable and responsive because of the RTI act. The change that has been felt from the side of the public has been that of more confidence and a sense of emboldening that the knowledge of RTI act and its provisions has equipped them with. The more seasoned users of RTI, such as the activists who have a more hawk-eye view of the entire scenario are not satisfied as they had more expectations for the changes in the system which according to them have still not materialised.
Impact on knowledge about acts, policies and schemes
Interaction within “democratic authority structures” not only facilitates democratisation through participation but also through democratic sensitisation of the public. Democratic sensitisation involves enhancing the knowledge regarding procedural democracy on the one hand and equipping public with perspectives on democracy on the other. This is what Carole Pateman calls (Pateman 2012, pp. 10) “the educative or developmental side of participatory democracy”.
The proportion of people who have read the RTI act is quite less even though all of them use its provisions for obtaining information, which shows that the act has acquired significance as a mechanism or tool rather than as an act or a piece of legislation. It also shows that using some of the provisions of an act does not necessarily mean knowledge about the entire act. Furthermore, reading the act is not a guarantee of knowing about all its provisions and sections as is evidenced by the findings. The only people who had read the act and were aware about its provisions were those who had a deeper engagement with legislations, policies and schemes in general such as those engaged in activism, journalism and legal profession. Greater awareness of the women who attended slum meetings of SNS, about the section four of the act, than some of those who claimed to have read the act also ascertains this point regarding the impact of the nature of engagement that public has with laws and legislations, upon their awareness and knowledge.
Nevertheless, RTI act in more than one way does impact upon the general awareness and knowledge of the users of this act. Reading other acts, official documents and government orders primarily by those who used it for non-personal reasons is one of those ways. But at the same time using the RTI act to obtain information from different departments, regarding various schemes or policies or entitlements, does enhance knowledge of the RTI applicants about these matters irrespective of the reasons that they filed RTI applications for or whether they had consulted other government documents, acts, policies or schemes for writing RTI applications.
Impact of RTI on wider collaboration and cooperation
While at an individual level or as part of citizens’ collective groups, there are tendencies of cooperation amongst public vis-à-vis RTI usage, there is still not a collaborative effort emanating at a widespread level between public and bureaucracy, because of the use of RTI act. Except a few activists the bureaucracy is not engaging as a result of RTI act with most of the public who may file RTI applications for personal or non-personal reasons. This seems a missed opportunity to use RTI mechanism as a feedback system for getting inputs from the public on governance, administration and bureaucracy.
Perception about RTI and its impact
The prevalent perspective regarding RTI among people irrespective of whether they used the act for personal or non-personal reasons is that it is their right first and foremost. Many do see it as a mechanism to ensure accountability as well, while few look at it as means to obtain justice. This suggests that perceptions about the RTI act are not limited to its strategic use as means to other ends. Rather the popular perception is that RTI act ensures the guaranteeing of the right to know for people. With regards to perspectives on impact of RTI on various fronts, the act is to some extent perceived as effective in policy implementation and formulation. However, it is evident that those using it for personal grievances are most convinced that RTI has made an impact on corruption. Even those who use it for non-personal reasons feel that because of the provisions of accountability in this act, the corrupt practices have been affected at grassroot levels. In other words, the RTI act has made an impact according to most, at the level of first point of contact between public and bureaucracy as the latter have become more alert in the discharge of their duties due to the looming possibility of RTI applications being filed in their departments.
As these findings illustrate bureaucracy is important for the delivery of basic entitlements and benefits of a social welfare state and with this importance bureaucracy retains an upper hand since it holds information regarding all the procedures through which these basic entitlements and services are delivered to citizens. At the same time, it is also important to engage with bureaucracy for other reasons such as research for journalism, advocacy, activism and legal cases as it remains the sole source of authenticated information, important to obtain for research purposes. In both cases the official (obtained from the government sources) status of this information is important because the state or the bureaucracy cannot deny its veracity and thus it can be used to make the government answerable and accountable on all fronts either at an individual level or at collective level.
Therefore, RTI act 2005 became an important intervention for the public who could now use the provisions in this act to hold the bureaucracy accountable for giving them the information that they require and also ask for the same through prescribed procedures. Even though bureaucracy has always been the “custodian of information” and never its owner, this act in many ways made this fact true in practical reality. This realisation therefore begins to correct, to a certain extent, the imbalance of power between the public and the bureaucracy, an important condition of democratisation as has been illustrated in the theoretical framework of the study.
But as Pateman suggests, participation is an important need for democratisation. Even though without the RTI act, public does try to engage with bureaucracy for personal and non-personal reasons, the act in itself makes this participation a part of official records and makes the bureaucracy accountable to respond to this engagement, a point that majority of respondents have also highlighted. In this scenario when bureaucracy creates obstructions for the public to access information at various stages, it is reflective of the resistance that the bureaucracy tries to put up to the perceived challenge to its power in form of demand for information and accountability by the common citizens.
At the same time people’s realisation of the power that the RTI act grants them by binding officials to respond to them in a timely manner with credible and verified information, also gives them the resources to cut through the resistance that bureaucrats put up. Thus, RTI act has not only revolutionised participation in terms of public’s engagement with the bureaucracy, specifically with regards to flow of information but also provided a tool to counter any attempts to discourage this participation. However, it needs to be mentioned that the persistence of information seekers from lower socio-economic backgrounds was facilitated by their association with a citizens’ collective that gave them organisational support in face of adversities.
Carole Pateman has written about participation, “individuals need to interact within democratic authority structures that make participation possible”. (Pateman 2012, pp. 10) The RTI act has perhaps provided one such democratic authority structure, interacting within which individuals have found a voice and meaningful engagement with bureaucracy, a necessary condition for democratisation.
RTI act as observed earlier not only makes an impact upon nature of participation and its effectiveness but also affects the general perspective, awareness and knowledge of its users. But this impact is different based on the kind of engagement that users have with the act. Education also doesn’t make much of a difference in this regard as those who might be lesser educated could be well versed with the specific sections of the act if they have been instructed about them specifically.
Similarly, different reasons for using RTI act, i.e. either for personal or non-personal use, also impact differently upon the behaviour of RTI users in terms of consulting other official documents such as government orders, acts, policy documents etc. The wider the ambit of the issue being addressed through the act, the more are the possibilities of referring to other documents.
Prevalent perception about RTI act as a right does suggest that using RTI act has indeed furthered the understanding of rights among individuals from different backgrounds. This is especially significant for those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and are relatively less educated. At the same time RTI usage has also contributed in evolving perspectives on other issues such as corruption and policy formulation and implementation.
Perceptions and knowledge about issues such as corruption and policy implementation as well as concepts like rights and accountability are important to foster knowledgeable public opinion among citizens. The expansion of such public opinion, as Weber suggests is an important condition to promote a democratic spirit among people which furthers the goal of democratisation. The influence of the RTI act on citizens is contingent upon factors like nature of engagement, issues being addressed and the modes through which they learn about the act. Irrespectively, the act does promote certain levels of sensitisation and awareness among individuals, which in fact help them in participation and also in resisting the pressures against participation.
For reading the full report please click on this link.
Pateman, C. 1973. Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pateman, C. 2012. Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics (10)1, pp. 7-19
Weber, M. 1993. Selection 9 From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. In: Philip Green ed. Key Concepts in Critical Theory. New Jersey: Humanities Press, pp 74-82
Yadav, S. 2017. Journalism through RTI. New Delhi: Sage Publications India.