The issue of FOI and trust looks simple but isn’t. Politicians and others point out, quite rightly, that the more open you are the more you will be trusted. This is true but it depends entirely on what information you are being open about.
The issue of if, why and how the public trust government is hotly debated. Trust may be based on experiences, emotions, gut instinct or all three. There is a question over whether trust is actually declining in the developed world. Many believe it has been falling since the mid-1960s blaming politicians, television, a more complex society, a lack of deference, the Vietnam War, the Beatles and Lyndon Johnson. Others have pointed out that, from what little we know, government has only ever been trusted by a few of the people a little of the time. Politics, they say, is not an occupation for the trustworthy.
So where does FOI fit? It is hoped that the more open you are the more the public will trust you. This is because they will understand more about what you do and also because, quite simply, you will be less secretive.
Our projects have all looked into this. Our central government project concluded that FOI did not increase trust. This was because most people find out about FOI through stories which rightly (see MPs’ expenses said journalists) or wrongly (just open a newspaper said politicians) are about government failure. But it isn’t fair to blame FOI. This never ending battle is much bigger than FOI, which just gets caught up in it. The government spins, the media attacks. The more interesting point is that both requesters and officials felt their own requests were in some senses ‘motivated by mistrust’. But again this isn’t FOI’s fault.
Our local project has found different results. Local government is, generally more trusted than central government anyway. Here it can be very variable. In some areas the local press use FOI often, in others never. It is also used to find out about lots of non-local government issues that don’t necessarily reflect on the council such as violence in public libraries (more than you think in answer to your unspoken question) and dirty restaurants. Requesters are also divided-some say it has increased their trust, others say it has not. Local politicians have pointed out that they can do things that central government can’t to build ‘local trust’. They can improve their services (taking bins out, repairing roads) and try to be more ‘visible’ in the community. Opening fetes and judging vegetables may have more effect than any FOI.
This last point highlights the difficulty. How you measure trust depends, as ever, on what you ask and how you ask it. Some recent studies about E-government point to the fact that people trust more if they see their actions make a difference. It also may dependent on what attitudes and ideas they bring with them (here some members of the public were disappointed by the messiness of how politics really worked).
There is probably no definitive way of answering this. The real answer to ‘does FOI improve trust?’ is ‘it depends’. It is unrealistic and naïve to hope FOI on its own, caught between a spinning government and a hostile press, could improve things. It may also be early days. For openness to make a difference it could take time, a whole lot of precious time, patience and time, the two things politicians don’t have.
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