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Research on Open Data and Transparency


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Disruptive, Dynamic and Democratic? Ten Years of FOI in the UK

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Here’s a new draft paper on ten years of FOI by myself and Robert Hazell Ten Years of FOI SSRN

The UK’s FOI Act came into force in 2005. Three linked research projects were conducted to evaluate its overall impact, and assess to what extent FOI has met its objectives across central and local government and parliament. They conclude that FOI has met its ‘core’ objectives, making central government more transparent and accountable. However, it has not improved decision-making, public understanding, participation or trust. Nor has FOI significantly changed how government works, despite politicians’ fears of a chilling effect. The article concludes with a look at key issues that will shape the future of FOI.

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For those of you who can’t wait, here’s the conclusion:

Conclusion

FOI ‘tells a transformative narrative’ as ‘transparency enables – and, indeed forces [a] virtuous chain of events’ towards more accountable and democratic government (2015, 151). FOI has made British government more transparent and increased accountability. FOI’s very unpredictability may be a powerful force for enforcing behaviour by anticipated reactions (Prat 2006).

Its deeper impact on democracy is less clear. This is not because FOI has failed but simply because shifting levels of participation and public trust, are complex and FOI alone is unlikely to make a difference. If it hasn’t realised all its supporters’ hopes, it has not realised the fears of others. It has not had any significant impact on the decision-making process or some of the key constitutional conventions. Nor does it appear to have led to a chilling effect.

One of the difficulties with FOI is that it is many things simultaneously- a tool of democratic empowerment, a human right, and an everyday grievance mechanism (Birkinshaw 2006). It is dynamic, shaped by how it is used by diverse user groups. FOI can be best seen as part of a wider political ecosystem of formal and informal mechanisms designed to scrutinise government and hold them accountable, what Keane calls ‘Monitory Democracy’ (2009). FOI sits alongside old accountability mechanisms, such as the media and Parliament, and new ones, such as Open Data and digital activism. It is now part of a shifting transparency ecosystem disrupting established agendas and generating uncertainty (Kreimer 2008).

So where will it go in the future? Meijer cites Dror’s characterisation of transparency as a pharmacon: ‘it heals in correct doses and kills when the doses are too high’ (2014, 516). However, FOI requires use to flourish and, more problematically, it requires support from those very politicians most at risk from FOI exposure.

You can also see it here Worthy, Ben and Hazell, Robert, Disruptive, Dynamic and Democratic? Ten Years of Freedom of Information in the UK (December 28, 2015). Parliamentary Affairs, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2708768


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FOI U-turn: Is the Government Getting Cold Feet?

U-turn-permitted-croppedIs the government, like so many others before it, considering a u-turn on FOI reform? According to the Sun it seems the  answer is yes. The Sun editorial quotes a ‘ senior Tory minister’ as saying ‘nobody in the Government wants to touch this now, it’s a very hot political potato’ and points out that the government itself has failed to present any evidence to the Commission. So why the cold feet?

  • Civil society has marshalled a large array of bodies and groups, as seen with 140 signatory letter earlier this year and is (presumably) responsible for the majority of the 30,000 submissions to the Commission.
  • Parliamentary arithmetic: there is opposition to FOI reform not only from Labour (who has launched its own review) and the SNP but the so called ‘Runnymeade Tories’, a group of up to 12 or so libertarian Conservative backbenchers. Should some of the changes require primary legislation, or even secondary change such as a statutory instrument (a touchy subject these days), David Davies speculated that it ‘may also have dawned on ministers is that they are have no majority to do this in either the Commons or the Lords’. Conservative Home, seen as the voice of the grassroots of the Conservative party, is also opposed to any change-and is actually pressuring to extend the Act.
  • Media opposition to change: papers from the Sun to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have joined the opposition, with the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre making a personal intervention.

For a party with a working majority of 17 in the Commons, no majority in an already unrully House of Lords and a Prime Minister committed to lead the most open government in the world, it’s beginning to seem that FOI reform simply isn’t worth the candle. The symbolic damage sustained by cutting back on FOI will do the government far more harm than good with some of their core constituencies in the party and media. The great 2015-2016 pushback may join a long list of other attempts that (almost) all failed: 

  • Introduce fees or change the cost limits (2006)
  • Remove Parliament (2007)
  • Removal of Monarch and Heir and exempt Cabinet documents (2010)
  • Clampdown on ‘industrial users’ (2012-2013)

That may not, however, stop other bodies trying to get out of FOI…