In July 2015 the government appointed a new independent commission to look into how the law on freedom of information (FOI) is working. Here, Ben Worthy, Peter John and Matia Vannoni explain how their field experiment provides evidence that FOI requests work, and that they are twice as likely to get a response than informal requests.
In 2010 Tony Blair felt that passing the Freedom of Information Act was one of his biggest mistakes; in 2012 David Cameron claimed requests were ‘furring up the arteries’ of government. In 2015, FOI became controversial again when, after a Supreme Court ruling, the government appointed an independent commission to look into how the law is working. All the debate on the benefits and costs of FOI rest on one question, which is whether the law actually works as it should. Does FOI enable a user to ask a question and get a response? Do public bodies comply? Finding this out is trickier than it sounds. Simply measuring numbers of requests may not tell us much, as we need to measure it against something else. Some great attempts have been made in Brazil, Mexico and in an international 14 country study.
Building on these, we devised an experiment to compare whether a request under the law works better than a more informal route: that of simply asking. We sent out a series of similarly-worded FOI requests and informal asks – the former specifically mentioned the FOI Act. This way we hoped we could see if an FOI with the force of law worked better than just asking informally.
Politicians engage in a variety of local campaign strategies that they think will help them get re-elected, but they don’t really know if the money they spend works or not. Peter John explains how experiments conducted by politicians and researchers working in partnership can be a useful way of finding out what actually works in local campaigning.
Experiments are becoming very common these days as public agencies turn to randomised controlled trials to evaluate public policies. The Behavioural Insights Team, which was in the Cabinet Office, has blazed a trail by using trials to test for a range of innovations, such as getting income tax paid on time, collecting court fines, getting people into work, and improving education attainment, just to name a few of the recent applications. Despite this growing interest, one group of people doesn’t use experiments very much: the politicians, at least those in the UK.
Politicians want to get re-elected and they engage in a variety of local campaign strategies with the aim of improving their chances of doing so such as leafleting, e-mailing, door knocking, using social media, and buying space in newspapers. But they don’t really know if the money they spend generates votes in the ballot box. Politicians have been advised that they need to get information on the type of voters who support them so that they can target messages to them, or find their core or loyal voters to ensure that they turn out to vote. But looking at election results after spending the money does not tell them whether their campaigning worked or whether they would have won anyway. In contrast, experiments use randomisation to provide a fair comparison between doing nothing and carrying out an intervention.