Freedom of Information Center of Armenia.

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How much do the ministries spend on catering?

15.01.2013

On September 4, 2012 the Freedom of Information Center sent written requests to the RA President’s Staff, RA National Assembly, as well as all Ministries asking to provide information on catering delivered during official meetings of the President, Chairman of the National Assembly and Ministers.

Official Hospitality

In the written responses to FOICA requests separate accounts on catering during official meetings were provided by the RA National Assembly, the RA Ministries of Health, Justice, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs, Economy, Energy and Natural Resources, Education and Science, Diaspora, and Urban Development. Among these institutions the RA Ministry of Foreign Affairs has spent the largest amount on catering, which comprised AMD 9,600,000, whereas the smallest amounts were spent by the RA National Assembly and the RA Ministry of Economy, comprising AMD 200,000 andAMD 174,800, respectively. The response from the RA Ministry of Defense deserves a special mention. The Ministry stated that costs of food and beverages are not reported separately, and that catering is arranged in accordance with the protocol for events within the framework of visits of foreign delegations to the RA, at a rate of AMD 12,500 per person.

Given the nature of the RA National Assembly (NA), and since the response suggested that NA is one of the institutions spending the least amount on catering, FOICA sent another written request to the RA NA on November 20, 2012, this time requesting information on total amounts allocated and spent for representation expenses. However, NA provided an incomplete response to this request from FOICA. Nevertheless, NA didmention that AMD 195,000,000 was allocated for representation expenses and AMD 165,431,300 was actually spent. According to the response, this amount was spent on catering/hospitality, hotel service and souvenirs procurement. It is more than surprising that out of AMD 195 million only AMD 350,000, i.e. 0.17% was allocated for catering, and out of AMD 165 million only AMD 200,000, i.e. 0.12% was spent on catering. It deserves attention that FOICA's request on representation costs requested information on expenditure areas for the amounts allocated for representation costs, whereas NA has mentioned three comprehensive areas: catering, hotel service and souvenirs procurement. So it turns out that of the total amount spent, 99.88% was used for procuring hotel service and souvenirs and only 0.12% was spent on catering. In any case, the inadequacy of information provided by the RA NA is obvious. If the number guests received by NA was so little that their catering costs (e.g. coffee breaks during meeting and other events, etc.) were just AMD 200,000, then why the expenses on hotel service and souvenirs for so few guests comprised AMD 165 million?

If one compares total allocated and disbursed representation costs of all types, the largest amount, AMD 225,940,000,was allocated to the RA President’s Staff and accordingly, the largest amount, AMD 33,563,700, was also spent by the RA President’s Staff.

It has to be noted that the RA Ministry of Nature Protection and Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs informed in their written responses that no expenditures were allocated for catering during the official meetings of the Ministers in charge of these institutions.

The content of responses from the freedom of information aspect

It must be mentioned that no request of FOICA remained unanswered. Absence of silent refusals to respond is rather interesting, because despite reduction of such refusals in recent several years, still silent rejections comprise about 25-30% annually.

At this stage (as of May 4, 2012) out of 20 requests sent, 16 (80%) were responded in full, and 4 responses (20%) were incomplete. The incomplete responses were provided by Ministries of Emergency Situations, Diaspora, Transport and Communication, and Urban Development. It has to be noted that Ministry of Emergency Situations did not answer Question 3 of the FOICA's request, and the other ministries that responded incompletely, did not answer Question 1 of the request (Ministry of Transport and Communication also provided no answer to Question 2).


It should be mentioned that in 7 instances a repeated request had to be made – the Freedom of Information Center sent second requests to all four ministries that provided incomplete responses, as well as to the RA President, and the RA Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs. The written requests of FOICA were composed, signed and sent by the FOICA’s lawyer. In response to these requests from the Freedom of Information Center the RA President’s Staff and the RA Ministry of Culture stated that in order to make requests on behalf of the Freedom of Information Center one must have a Power of Attorney. Since the responses to FOICA's requests were timely, it was deemed that they responded fully and in a timely manner, but repeated requests were sent to these institutions with attached Powers of Attorney. It needs to be noted that requiring a Power of Attorney is not against the law; however, it does create an additional barrier to exercising the right to the freedom of information. The reason is that information which is not subject to disclosure is restricted for everyone, whereas information, the disclosure of which is not restricted by the law must be open to everyone. The opportunities to exercise the right to freedom of information should be absolutely equal for everyone (the law does not stipulate privileges or additional obligations for individuals or those representing an organization, does not provide specific procedures for responses, nor does it outline different limits for permissible information). In this sense, requiring a Power of Attorney in case of an information request on behalf of an organization does not stem from the concept of the freedom of information. The requirement to present a Power of Attorney creates additional obstacles; for example, receipt of information is unnecessarily delayed. Proceeding from the above mentioned, it is desirable that institutions possessing the information do not require Power of Attorney in such cases, which would correspond more to the principles of the freedom of information.

A repeated request was sent to the RA Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs, because by the time of this repeated request, i.e. in one month after sending the first one, the FOICA received no response from the Ministry. However, after FOICA has already sent a repeated request, a full response came from the Ministry. Despite this, the Ministry also responded to the second request of the FOICA. None of such repeated requests remained unanswered, and no incomplete responses were received either.

Response times

All the requests, including the repeated ones, were taken into account when comparing the response times to the requests. The response times presented herein are considered for 27 requests, of which 7 were repeated ones. In total, 12 requests out of 27 (44%) were responded in a timely manner and for 15 (56%) the responses were received after deadlines. The best response time was by the RA President’s Staff, which responded to the first request within 6 days after sending it. It has to be mentioned though, that the RA President’s Staff delayed the response to the second request and responded in 11 days after it was sent. The RA National Assembly, RA Ministries of Justice, Energy and Natural Resources, Culture were among the most responsive ones in terms of time, as responses from them were received in 7 days after sending the requests. As odd as it may sound, the RA Ministry of Emergency Situations was simultaneously among the quickest and the slowest in terms of response time. The Ministry responded to FOICA’s first request in one month and four days after sending it, whereas the second request was responded in 7 days.

The average response time to the total 27 requests sent from the Freedom of Information Center to the institutions possessing the requested information comprised 13 days.
 

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