opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency

The Politics of Freedom of Information-free sample chapter ‘FOI: hard to resist and hard to escape’

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Here’s a sample of chapter 1 from my new book asking why would anyone be reckless enough to decide to pass an FOI Act?

Freedom of Information (FOI) laws are difficult to resist in opposition but hard to escape from once in power. A commitment to an FOI law sends out strong messages of radicalism, change and empowerment that new governments find difficult to resist. However, when politicians regret their promises, as they often quickly do,
the same symbolism makes the reforms difficult to escape from.

To make the picture more complex, FOI laws bring little external advantage and generate internal unhappiness. One of the central paradoxes of FOI laws is that they are symbolically resonant but useless in electoral terms: politicians gain ‘credibility’ but not votes. Within government, FOI laws reach across the whole of government, running against the natural tendency of bureaucracy to be secretive (Weber 1991). Such laws carry the potential to delve deep into bureaucracies’ work, triggering investigation of official decisions and procedures by those hostile to them. So how and why do governments pass them?

FOI laws are, it is argued, frequently passed out of naivety or inattention by inexperienced and new governments responding to reformist impulses from within or without or seeking to create a new ‘open’ approach after a scandal (Berliner 2014, Darch and Underwood 2010). Politicians have many motives for introducing FOI, from the simple politics of wrong footing or neutralising opponents to the longerterm, calculating intention of securing access to information when they are out of power (Berliner 2014). Context is also key, as laws are frequently passed amid wider change or as a response to a particular problem. As well as calculation and context there are a series of symbolic pressures. Politicians can, at least in the short term, earn a form of ‘moral capital’ from supporting openness (Birchall 2014; Michener 2009).

Read the rest here worthy-chapter-1-2

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