Published on September 28, 2015

Freedom of Information: sand in the machine?

Open government Open Government Partnership UK Open Government Network

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

5481925026_622bf4b0bc_zIt’s hard to imagine many people getting excited about International Right to Know Day on September 28th. This is a big problem for those of us who care about more effective government, because it’s one of those largely unsexy issues that really matters and can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

It’s important more widely too, because without access to adequate information it’s difficult for citizens to engage properly in our democracy, either at election time, or as part of the normal policy process.

With this in mind, the FOI Advocates Network has launched a campaign to get people to share stories of success where information requests have had a positive impact on individuals and communities. They are collecting these examples on the Twitter tag #FOISuccess and on Facebook.

This campaign is important because resistance inside the government to current FOI provision is high. So much so that before the summer the government announced a review of the operation of the current FOI act.

At a recent event at the Institute for Government, the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood is quoted as saying that the review has ‘to address a “chilling effect” [that FOI has] on the way Whitehall operates’.

At the same event, a senior Foreign Office official is reported to have said that the legislation felt ‘like the sand in the machinery that constantly distracts from the process of getting on and delivering on policy’.

Despite this view being widely shared by government officials across government, there is little evidence to suggest that it is the case.

Research we carried out for the OECD into open government demonstrates that it is the way FOI law is framed and not FOI itself which has an impact. Narrow and restrictive FOI laws lead to large numbers of FOI requests as citizens try to find out information about why decisions are taken. All this takes time and resources to respond to.

By contrast, in countries such as Finland, FOI laws with much wider scope mean that citizens have no need to try to get information out of government. There are far fewer requests as a result.

FOI laws with wider scope also have the intended benefit. If citizens are able to see what decisions are being taken, when they are being taken and using what evidence they can contribute better data and new ideas, for example. This in turn leads to more effective and cheaper policies.

The current FOI law isn’t sand in the machine. That’s the wrong metaphor entirely.

One of the reasons that government makes bad decisions is because it takes them too fast, without adequate information and ignoring the people who will be affected by the decision. FOI isn’t sand in the machine; it’s the centrifugal governor (the part of a steam engine that regulates the amount of fuel keeping it at constant speed).

The current FOI law, with its narrow scope, is badly designed, but it’s better than nothing. The solution isn’t to reduce the scope of FOI still further. Counter-intuitively for most inside government, the solution is to widen the scope of FOI; to extend my metaphor, to slow government down in a more predictable way.

Designing an FOI law that follows the principles of openness and transparency as laid out in the Open Government Partnership will, in the end, lead to quicker, more effective decision-making as decisions are less likely to end up in judicial review, for example. Restricting FOI further will only make the government machine less effective and more costly to run.

Photo credit: Thomas Coxon

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