Why pass FOI laws? The politics of freedom of information

Ben Worthy

Why are there now more than 100 freedom of information laws around the world, even though they help opponents and hinder governments? In a new book, published this month by Manchester University Press, Ben Worthy investigates. He concludes that the main reason is that as a symbolic pledge in opposition FOI laws are hard to resist. Once in power these promises are hard to back down from, though experience suggests that proposed laws are often watered down before being enacted. These findings are summarised here.

worthy-bookWhy don’t more politicians react to freedom of information (FOI) like Lyndon Johnson? Why don’t more of them run a mile when presented with the possibility of giving the public a legal right to ask for information from the government? When the idea of an FOI law was suggested to Johnson in 1966 by a fellow Democrat Congressman the US President responded, after some swearing, ‘I thought you were on my side?’ As his Press Secretary explained:

LBJ… hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets and opening government files; hated them challenging the official view of reality.

For any budding politician, FOI appears to be the ultimate political boomerang. It helps your opponents. It hinders you.

To make FOI laws even less appealing, there are no votes in them. Merlyn Rees, a Home Secretary who fought hard against an FOI law in the 1970s, once exclaimed that ‘the Guardian can go on for as long as it likes about open government… but I can tell you that in my own constituency of 75,000 electors I would be hard pressed to find many who would be interested’. Only in India, where the Right to information Act was part of an anti-corruption campaign, have FOI laws responded to broad public enthusiasm. So how is it that there are now more than 100 FOI laws around the world?

The question is really why would a politician support FOI in the first place? Sometimes they believe in openness and sometimes leaders who don’t believe in it have it forced upon them, as Theresa May has discovered over Brexit. Other times it is for pure advantage, because a scandal makes it hard to avoid (as in Ireland), so a politician can ensure that they get information in the future or because it has promised FOI as part of a coalition deal (as in India). It is also about context. Often FOI laws are pushed through when there is lots of other constitutional or legal change going on. Across the world, as Rick Snell points out, organised groups and enthusiastic individuals, often ‘outsiders’, push for an FOI law when other key people are distracted or looking the other way.

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Disruptive or beneficial? Freedom of information in the UK

Ben Worthyrobert_hazell (1)

On 1 March, to some surprise, the Burns Commission concluded that the Freedom of Information Act was ‘generally working well’. Ben Worthy and Robert Hazell explain how the Commission came to this unexpected result and, drawing on the results three major research projects, argue that since it came into force in 2005 FOI has achieved its primary objectives of making British government more accountable and transparent.

Freedom of information was in the news again when the Independent Commission, chaired by Lord (Terry) Burns, delivered its report on 1 March.  To some surprise, the Commission concluded the Act was ‘generally working well’, and there was ‘no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered’. This was not the expectation when the Commission was established last summer, with a membership of Lord Burns, Lord (Alex) Carlile, Dame Patricia Hodgson, Lord (Michael) Howard, and Jack Straw.  Their terms of reference invited them to consider whether there was a need for sensitive information to have robust protection; whether the Act adequately recognised the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development; and whether change was needed to moderate the burden on public authorities.  All that suggested a report that was likely to restrict FOI in various ways, but that is not what has happened.  Why has the Commission come to this unexpected result?

The answer lies mainly in the evidence they received.  The Commission received over 30,000 written responses, with 29,334 coming via the 38 Degrees campaign website.  The media and civil society organisations like the Campaign for Freedom of Information were strongly supportive of the Act, and it was left to a few local authorities, police authorities and NHS Trusts to explain the burdens they felt it imposed.  No central government departments submitted evidence, so if the government had wanted to restrict FOI, its case went by default.

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Better than asking: an experiment on the effectiveness of FoI requests

Ben WorthyMatia

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.

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The government’s Freedom of Information commission tilts the political discussion towards damage and cost

Ben Worthy

On Friday of last week, the government announced a new commission on Freedom of Information. Here, Ben Worthy offers his response to the announcement, arguing that the objections to the scope and usage of FOI that have been raised are nothing new, and furthermore aren’t unique to the UK. Further, he argues that the commission’s remit tilts discussion naturally towards the two issues of damage and costs, rather than a more balanced cost/benefit analysis. 

What’s Wrong?

The questions in the remit of the commission boil down to asking ‘is FOI undermining decision-making’ and ‘is it too expensive’? The remit itself is, of course, priming discussion in a particular way, framing it  towards two issues of (1) whether FOI is hampering decision-making and (2) whether it ‘costs too much’ . So what does the evidence say?

Is FOI Hampering Decision-making?

Just to put this discussion into context:

  • Our 2010 study of FOI in the UK found very few requests for Cabinet documents and also found a broader lack of interest in the decision-making process. Leaks are a far more important cause of openness for these citadels of government decision-making than FOI.
  • UK governments since 2005 have used the veto seven (or technically eight) times, compared with 48 times in Australia in the first five years of its own FOI Act. This seems to indicate that ‘dangerous’ requests trying to prise open the very centre of government are relatively few in number, though their psychological effect may be disproportionate.

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10 Years of Freedom of Information in the UK: Tony, Tension and Turbulence

Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy looks at how the Freedom of Information Act has come to work in practice and the debates around whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He argues that on balance it appears to be a success, bringing very public benefits and potentially unseen positive outcomes at local level as well.

‘The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet’ –Tony Blair 2010

‘The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness’ – House of Commons Justice Select Committee 2012 Post-Legislative Scrutiny of FOI

These two comments sum up the difficulties of measuring how successful the UK Freedom of Information Act has been. It isn’t just about statistics on numbers of requests, users or refusals (though there are some here if you are interested). What people think also shapes how it works and how others then behave. So a former Prime Minister sees it as one of his biggest mistakes while a Parliamentary committee see it as a vital part of democracy. Which is it?

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Justice Committee FOI Evidence: A Quick Guide

The Justice Committee has received 112 submissions providing evidence on which to base their post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act. Twenty-five per cent of these are from universities, or bodies representing them, making HE by far the most vocal sector.

A number of common themes have emerged. One point, made by the Information Commissioner, among others, was that public authorities should be allowed to reject requests on the grounds that they are “frivolous” as well as that they are “vexatious”. This would allow them to bin queries which, while not calculated to harass or annoy the Council, are simply very silly. Bad news for the “Concerned Citizen” who caught Leicester City Council napping when he asked what planned to do to fight the zombie menace.

Many public authorities complained about the cost of dealing with FOI requests, and more generally, the costs that currently ‘don’t count’. Requests are cost-barred if the price of answering them would be more than £600 for central government and £450 for everyone else . Staff time is valued at £25 per hour. Time spent considering exemptions or redacting certain information does not count towards the total.  Leeds Council said  that this results in underestimating of the real cost of FOI, not least because an hour of staff time costs them more than £25.

The Ministry of Justice, and the NHS Foundation Trust Network, are two among a number of public authorities who worry about who benefits from FOI. In some cases, they say, commercial organisations use the Act to gain a competitive advantage. This means that the FOI Act is effectively subsidising certain businesses- which they claim was not Parliament’s intention when passing the Act 12 years ago.

Oral evidence by journalists the following week- Martin Rosenbaum, Doug Wills, David Higgerson and David Henke – raised a number of points relating to their experience as requesters. Although the Act had caused a “sea change” in access to information, it has not created a culture of openness among public authorities. Despite apparent commitment to FOI, every so often, Martin Rosenbaum said, “the mask slips” and the true face of government emerges. The Home Office have even accidentally sent him an email discussing the department’s desire to keep certain documents secret, because they show that there is a lack of evidence to support Home Office drugs policy.

The four said Act has altered journalistic practice. It has encouraged whistle blowers, because they now do not need to hand over documents to journalists. Instead, they can simply recommend a FOI request. Additionally, some stories now begin with a request made by a member of the public. This means that more voices are heard in the public debate. But it doesn’t always improve the quality of that debate. On the contrary, sometimes it “improves the quality of people’s prejudices”, by allowing them to feed their hunger for information only on their personal favourite titbits.  They also noted the hypocrisy of organisations that complain about request volume, and also complain about requests from journalists.  Journalistic use of FOI, they said, is efficient:  the information extracted is published and the media’s entire audience, instead of just one person, can be informed.

We submitted oral, as well as written, evidence to the Justice Committee based on our different research projects over the years. We reiterated our conclusions that the Freedom of Information Act has succeeded in its core objectives of promoting the transparency and accountability of public bodies. However, the Act was also sold as a mechanism that would increase public trust and participation, improve the quality of decision making and improve public understanding of the political process. It is almost impossible to measure whether or not it has delivered on these promises and moreover, these policy goals are somewhat out of FOI’s reach (see our previous post on the problem of measuring, let alone increasing public trust, for instance).  We also stressed the problems of measuring ‘concentrated costs’ of FOI against ‘dispersed ‘benefits’, which inherently skews the discussion. You can see this reflected in the submissions themselves, few of which attempt to quantify FOI’s benefits in monetary terms, but are quick to try calculate its costs.

Jim Amos, drawing on his experience in researching and also training FOI, also asked FOI officers to help themselves, adding a pragmatic note to the review’s proceedings. The way to make sure the Act works well is not necessarily amendments and fees, but “robust professionalism”. Public authorities should make use of the exemptions and the cost limits available to them. What they should not do is work very hard to fulfil unreasonable requests, and then complain about the burden involved in doing so. Whatever the results of this post-legislative scrutiny, this advice ought to be heeded.

Holy see?

As  noted in our Monthly Update, an English priest has recently
suggested that the Vatican should consider implementing a Freedom of Information (FOI) law.

Father Alexander Lucie-Smith raises an intriguing, but sadly fanciful prospect. FOI is fundamentally a tool for citizens to hold their democratically-elected officials to account. Setting aside the obvious problems with that sentence vis-à-vis the Vatican, in practical terms the core issue would be one of administration.

Lucie-Smith writes that FOI legislation would help dispel the myths and conspiracy theories surrounding the Catholic Church and make it “harder to claim that the Vatican was addicted to cover-up.” As those making these claims are from outside of the Vatican state, our hypothetical “VFOI” would need to be similar to the UK law and allow non-citizens to make requests. Yet while the rest of the world doesn’t care enough about Britain to inundate our public servants with FOI requests, the Catholic Church has a somewhat larger ‘fan base’ with an estimated 1.181 billion Catholics worldwide.

The Constitution Unit estimates that local government in England received approximately 196,000 FOI requests last year. Obviously many of those came from the same source, but as a very (very) crude calculation, that is equivalent to 0.4% of the population of England each sending a request. If 0.4% of Catholics were to contact the Vatican, that would amount to 4,724,000 information requests a year!  Of course, that’s not including groups such as HIV/AIDS awareness campaigners, human rights activists, in addition to the contingent of conspiracy theorists, militant atheists, and countless others who would no doubt flood their inbox with questions, legitimate and vexatious. In short, due to the sheer scale, “VFOI” would be a massive cost sink and a bureaucratic nightmare.

The Vatican state is the smallest in the world, with a grand total of 832 citizens, all of which are in the employ of the state in one manner or another. Consequently, the only citizens to hold officials to account are other officials, and so any sort of “domestic” public disclosure would amount to “whistleblowing”, such as the current – most likely politically motivated – “Vatileaks” scandal. It could be that what the Vatican needs is not Freedom of Information, but something closer to the Public Interest Disclosure Act which affords protection to whistleblowers from their employers, subject to a public interest test. However, in a state without a public, what is the public interest?