By Gilbert Sendugwa
During the GPSA grantees workshop, held in Washington in May 2014, participants brainstormed about how collaborating with public oversight agencies such as Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) and Ombudsman’s Offices can complement the social accountability efforts led by CSOs within their respective GPSA projects. There was consensus about the need for further exploration of this topic given that most civil society organizations had had limited or no collaboration with public oversight agencies to advance accountability.
Concerning the interaction with the national Ombudsman institution in Uganda, the Inspectorate of Government (IG), the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), one of the GPSA grantees, has had mixed experiences. In 2011, AFIC and one of its members, HURINET supported West Ankole Civil Society Forum, a local citizen group to exercise their right to information. After an information request was submitted for records regarding the construction of a stadium and a 2-year struggle against Bushenyi District Local Government led to a court petition, it became clear that the contract of 906 million Ugandan Shillings (approx. USD 377,500), which had been awarded to HABA Construction Company, a sympathizer to the ruling party, represented a serious case of mismanagement of public resources. The Steering Committee of the Coalition of Freedom of Information in Uganda (COFI), discussed and examined possible options available to follow up. The strategy that led the Steering Committee to appeal to the IG to investigate the matter was backed up by two considerations:
- It could help sensitize the multiple accountability agencies in Uganda on the complimentary role that civil society civil society can play in supporting the work of oversight agencies.
- It could help mobilize support for giving citizens access to information by demonstrating the power of citizens’ access to public information in revealing abuse of public resources.
This process did not lead to a satisfying answer from the Inspectorate of Government, who, despite its promise to investigate the matter, never provided AFIC with feedback on the status and outcomes of the inquiry. However, interesting lessons could be distilled from the process. An important lesson drawn from this experience is that laws and institutional mechanisms for oversight are themselves not sufficient. There is a need for improved citizen’s access to information and engagement as well as promotion of mutual accountability among multiple oversight agencies.
With respect to CSO engagement with the Supreme Audit Institution, and as a follow up to the discussions during the GPSA grantees’ workshop, AFIC held a meeting with an Office of the Auditor General (OAG) official on May 22, 2014. The OAG expressed interest in working with AFIC and its local GPSA partners in the following areas:
- To have CSOs report cases that need OAG attention;
- To sensitize the public on OAG recommendations and Parliament’s actions on these recommendations;
- To collaborate to train local Community Based Organizations (CBO) networks that work with the OAG; and
- To have OAG conduct audits on the implementation of the Access to information law.
While acknowledging the uneven prior experience in engaging with these institutions, AFIC values constructive engagement with public oversight bodies in Uganda and Africa. Thus, it is committed to working with the OAG and the IG to promote collaboration in advancing social accountability, and in particular around the GPSA project on enhancing accountability and performance of social service contracts in Uganda. Independence of these bodies and citizen trust in them is crucial for constructive engagement. According to the 2012 Open Budget Survey by IBP (pp.38-39), the OAG has developed a strong reputation of independence, and its reports are widely respected by development partners and researchers in Uganda. They are publicized on websites, although many ordinary people who would benefit from this information do not have access to internet services.
Yet both institutions face some external challenges and internal weaknesses which may have an effect on constructive engagement with citizens and civil society. According to the 2011 Global Integrity (GI) Report for Uganda, there was need for improvement concerning the actual independence of the Inspectorate of Government (IG) and the professional full time staff, particularly when the positions of Inspector General of Government (IGG) and Deputies were vacant for an extended time. The Constitutional Court ruled that for the Inspectorate of Government’s decision to hold, the IGG and two deputies had to be fully constituted. The GI report underscores the limited government action on the IG recommendations and on OAG audit reports. The same challenge is stated in the IG January – June 2013 report. This is, therefore, a potential area for engagement between CSOs and the public oversight bodies to sensitize the public and other stakeholders on the challenges and the need for corrective measures as well as creating stakeholder awareness of the recommendations and roles of IG and OAG.
During the implementation of the GPSA project, AFIC will pursue the above areas of work with the OAG, while also exploring collaborative efforts with the Inspectorate of Government in making the information from the project available to the IG. We’ll also raise awareness about the Ombudsman’s role as a complaints handling mechanism for the communities targeted by the GPSA project. This is particularly relevant given IG efforts to develop a citizen engagement framework (p.46) with a focus on anticorruption work and supported by the World Bank. Given the IG’s ombudsman functions on addressing abuse of authority or office, and promoting fair, efficient and good governance in addition to its anti-corruption work and the World Bank’s work on developing its citizen engagement strategic framework, this could be also addressed.
 West Ankole Civil Society Forum brings together CSOs in the five districts of Bushenyi, Mitooma, Sheema, Rubirizi and Buhweju.
 For more information on this case, read this article.
The Steering Committee of the Coalition of Freedom of Information in Uganda is composed of AFIC, HURINET, Anticorruption Coalition Uganda, Human Rights Network of Journalists, and Uganda Media Development Foundation.
Open Contracting: Promoting information disclosure around public contracts in Uganda
Classroom Construction Community Monitoring Tool
Executive Director of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC)
Gilbert Sendugwa works as Executive Director for the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), a pan-African organization promoting the right of access to information in Africa. A social worker by training, Gilbert has previously worked and interfaced with challenges of lack of access to information in the sectors of health, education environment management, human and child rights. At AFIC Gilbert’s efforts are geared towards building a coordinated continental approach to access to information by facilitating learning, information exchange and strengthening knowledge base on access to information in Africa.