Does freedom of Information increase accountability? Officials think that it does not, according to a survey by the Ministry of Justice recently mentioned in the Guardian. The key word here is think. They think it doesn’t because they don’t directly see its effects.
Officials don’t notice FOI because often it works with other accountability mechanisms, especially the media or NGOs (see Voices for Libraries on going campaign). FOI rarely hunts alone and its use is lost amid lots of other questions, communications and research. A long running parliamentary investigation into extraordinary rendition , for example, used FOI in the UK and the US alongside Parliamentary Questions to show that a little more was known about the mysterious flights than was admitted at the time.
Officials also don’t notice it because it is not always high profile or immediate. For every MPs’ expenses scandal or list of visitors to Chequers there is the patient, often slow, digging up and fitting together of pieces of a jigsaw. Chris Ames has spent many years exposing bit-by-bit the inner workings of government as it prepared for the War in Iraq. His work has raised many questions about the defences made by the politicians involved. At local level there are many groups using it to pursue all sorts of important issues that may escape officials’ radars, allotments being a good example.
FOI does make government more accountability but not everyone sees it. Sometimes it is not the kind of accountability politicians or officials want. Often it is for unexpected things. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.