The chronicles of freedom of information

08 September 2016

The chronicles of freedom of information

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Part 1 - House of Justice

 

I started working at JumpStart three years ago. One of my first assignments was to write up Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and send them to government ministries. Now, I request different kinds of data from various state agencies almost every week. This process includes writing up our request and sending it to a special e-mail address, since every government agency is required to have a working FOI email or web request. Unfortunately, this process is often exhausting, emotional, and even comic. We often have to wait longer for the request than the legal 10-day timeframe,  we get only half of the information we asked for, or even have our requests lost in the process. Every agency has its own approach to these kind of requests and, in many cases, it is difficult for us to get the data that we need.

Although JumpStart is used to the absurd reality related to the request of information, lately several things have occurred which surprised even us. One example involves the most innovative agency in Georgia - The House of Justice. The original goal behind The House of Justice was to eradicate all sorts of bureaucracy and simplify provided services. In my case, it did not really happen that way!

Some time ago, JumpStart decided to collect data about properties given away by the government for free or for a symbolic price of 1 GEL. We requested public information from The House of Justice by e-mail but in response, I was told by a government representative that these kinds of requests were not filled out online. I should have taken it to The House of Justice and handed a physical request to one of the operators.

So I did exactly as I was told: I printed out the request for public information, put it in an envelope, sealed it up, and brought it to The House of Justice. After a long-lasting explanation, a confused representative at the welcome desk sent me to a different sector to speak with an even more confused customer service operator. After I explained what I wanted for a second time, she said: “This case is related to another sector and I will redirect you right now.” After spending more time in line, a second operator made some phone calls and asked other operators about the proper procedure in this case. Being unsure herself, the operator told me she could not accept this hard copy request in the envelope, but that I should handwrite the request on a special form. I was surprised and upset. While I protested this decision, I decided to follow it.

I opened the envelope and rewrote the request on the special form. I joined a queue, now for the third time that day, with my explanatory note in my hand. I met a third operator who became even more confused with this special form. After several calls, she told me she could not take the document in this format and she had to now retype it in her computer. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of this situation while watching the operator trying to read my handwriting and retype my letter in her database.

I spent 2.5 hours in The House of Justice for this one request. Two weeks later, I got the answer to my request. I was very interested to see the information that I’d requested, but instead, I read in the letter that accessing “information about property given for free or for a symbolic price by the government costs money,” 10 lari per case to be exact. So after all my torture, I only learned that to get information about the 1,176 properties that were given for free, I needed to pay 11,760 Lari. So much for freedom of information!

I will write several blog posts about our interesting experiences with the Freedom of Information process. Stay tuned for JumpStart’s FOI Chronicles.