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Research on Open Data and Transparency

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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