opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


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Freedom of Information in the UK: Past, Present and Future

With government getting more secretive and Brexit looming, where do we stand with FOI?

Listen in to this talk by myself and the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum at Newspeak House to find out where FOI came from and where it might go next.

FOI-Why Bother? (19 April 2017)

We ask why do governments pass FOI laws when they have no votes in them? What happens once they are passed? And how will the 2017 General Election and Brexit shape the future of openness?

You can see the slides hereFOI Newspeak and chapter one of my book here.


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Freedom of Information and openness- why bother? The past, present and future of transparency in the UK

 19th April 6.30pm Newspeak House, Bethnal Green

This event looks at why politicians push openness, how they try and back out of it and what happens once the policies are in place. It will look across FOI and Open Data in the UK and offer some thoughts on what may happen to the transparency agenda with Brexit.

The discussion coincides with the publication of Ben’s new book on this topic, ‘The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and Why Governments Pass Laws That Threaten Their Power’. The first chapter is available online here.

To register follow the link here https://attending.io/events/freedom-of-information-and-openness-why-bother-the-past-present-and-future-of-transparency-in-the-uk

 


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Donald Trump’s Secrecy Problem

Most US presidents that want to shake things up want to open them up too. From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, those wanting to change the system have championed greater openness, whether by promoting openness in international affairs or rebooting FOI and Open Data. ‘Sunlight’, they would almost always say, ‘is the best disinfectant’. Even LBJ, albeit reluctantly, became the father of the first US FOI law when he sulkily signed the 1966 bill.

This is not to say that they stay open and ‘sunny’. Most radicals go off being open. Some do it quickly, some do it slowly, but go off they almost always do. Woodrow Wilson, for all his promises, introduced the 1917 Espionage Act and hid his severe illness in 1919 from the public for two years (and his wife governed, giving the US a secret female president between 1919-1921). For all his promises, Obama also clamped down hard on leakers. As Sissela Bok put it:

‘How many leaders have come into office determined to work for more open government, only to end by fretting over leaks, seeking new ways to classify documents and questioning the loyalty of outspoken subordinates?’ (Bok 1986, 177).

Donald Trump seems to have skipped the ‘open government’ phase entirely and gone straight to the fretting. Greater transparency is not part of his big 100 day plans. Trump isn’t even transparent about the smaller things presidents are generally open about. In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course. Details of Obama’s falling income were on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site. Hillary Clinton’s returns are here and Bernie Sanders’ (possibly incomplete) ones here. Presidents also release medical records. Except, of course, Donald Trump, who released a rather brief statement that his doctor later confessed to have written ‘in a few minutes’.

All these little Trumpian secrets seem rather tame in comparison with ‘Russiagate’ that we see unfolding before our eyes (see this great piece for a detailed analysis and these 7 charts). This week the Senate hearings on Russian interference in the US election began in earnest while Mike Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, looks to go public. Though it isn’t clear what sort of scandal it is or where it may go, it is clear that all this secrecy is damaging the White House. Secrets almost always do three things: create suspicion, leaks and pressure to be open.

Problem one is that secrets makes people suspicious. Trump’s non-release of tax returns, for example, appears odder and odder – even Wikileaks is interested in it. As John Dean said, putting pressure on the FBI is not the behaviour of innocent people. And he should know: he was White House counsel for Richard Nixon 1970 until 1973.

This suspicion was encapsulated in Jeff Sessions’ cover up and non-answers to Congress. If, as defenders asserted after, it was normal to meet the Russian ambassador, why not say it? Why hide it? As Chris Hayes put it ‘there’s this pattern…in which there’s this kind of bizarre disassembling about the basic facts of the matter…do you understand why that reads to people as fishy?’ As the Onion put it, ‘Heartbroken Russian Ambassador Thought Special Meetings with Jeff Sessions Were Very Memorable’.

Problem two is that strident denial and clamping down kickstarts all sorts of informal openness. ‘The ship of state’, as the saying goes, ‘is the only known vessel that leaks from the top’. And Trump’s White House is extraordinarily and spectacularly leaky, as a result of factions, frustration and fear (not because of Trump’s phone). Even the administration’s attempts to clamp down on leaks leak.

Problem three is that secrecy attracts attention and motivates others to force you to be open. Trump’s supposed smokescreens and distractions via Twitter are spectacularly counterproductive. There are currently no less than three Congressional investigations ongoing (Senate intelligence, House intelligence and House oversight) all of whom will search, call witnesses and dig. Even Republicans in Congress, who have accepted his racism, sexism and mocking of the disabled, are beginning to want to know more. There’s also a joint intelligence services probe, run by many of the organisations Trump has outright insulted. On 20 March, the heads of the FBI and CIA, in Congressional hearings, contested Trumps’ wiretapping claims: as one observer put it ‘two months after taking office, Trump has implicitly been branded a fantasist by the heads of America’s largest law enforcement agency and its largest intelligence agency’. These investigations

…guarantee that the Russia cloud will hang over the Trump administration at least until the various investigations are over [this] could take months and possibly years to wrap up. All the while, speculation is likely to be fuelled by more leaks, and more embarrassing testimonies.

The media are pursuing Russia and, in a further echo of Watergate, are keeping the topic on the front pages. Meanwhile a whole host of FOI requests ask about Trump’s conflicts of interest with more than 3000 followers of this Trump FOI Slack channel and at least 184 requests on the requesting site muck rock (perhaps someone should invent a bot like this one).

As I wrote in relation to Theresa May, some politicians are born to be open, some achieve openness by accident and some have openness thrust upon them. The combination of suspicion, leaking and pressure is shining a light on the new president. Russia is now coming to dominate everything Trump does and undermine everything else. Soon there will be an attempt to answer the most dangerous question in politics – why? There may never be a smoking gun, but the glimpses and hints at a truth, and the drip of revelations, are likely to be deep, dangerous and damaging. Even in the very unlikely event there is no gun, just smoke, remember it’s the smoke that normally kills. Trump will regret he wasn’t more open from the start.

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College. His new book The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power is published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.


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Why pass FOI laws? The politics of freedom of information

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Why 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?

rti_infographic_-_worldwide_en_lang_-_for_website_cover2(Image courtesy of article 19.org)

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.

There is also the symbolism. Promising an FOI law sends out all sorts of positive messages of radicalism, change and empowerment that new governments find difficult to resist. This is especially the case for an opposition politician coming into power, as with Tony Blair after the ‘sleaze’ and secrecy of John Major. Committing to a law tells voters ‘we are different’ and also offers to give ‘the people’ a new right. FOI also carries a pleasing moral angle for politicians: ‘you can look inside as we’ve got nothing to hide (unlike the last lot) etc.’. All these reasons make FOI laws, at least on paper, hard to resist.

The problem for politicians is that they can overdo it. In 1996 Tony Blair gave a speech where he referred to FOI as ‘not just important in itself. It is part of bringing our politics up to date, of letting politics catch up with the aspirations of people’ and went on to say it would help involve more people in politics and increase trust in government. Blair’s words came back to haunt him, and stop him, when he wanted to water down the law.

The problem is that when the enthusiasm dims FOI is then hard to back out of. Politicians often display public support but have private regrets. Once in power there are fights behind closed doors as regretful enthusiasts and those who weren’t paying attention wake up and fight back: some laws are lost or put on hold and most are watered down. Parliaments, civil society and the media try to keep proposed laws alive. Those FOI laws that survive often emerge as a compromise between the hopes of campaigners and the fears of government.

Once FOI laws are up and running the split between supporters and opponents continues. Lyndon Johnson refused to have a photographer at the signing of the law. Tony Blair quaked at his own imbecility for championing it, devoting a medium sized rant in his autobiography to his own stupidity:

Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.

He went on to claim it was used only by journalists and mainly deployed as a ‘weapon’ (none of which is true). David Cameron, despite talking up Open Data, also felt FOI was a ‘buggeration factor’ and tried to reduce the strength of the law.

Yet outside of government FOI laws are popular. The laws have been used recently to find out, for example, about the hundreds of council tax arrears notices sent to councillors, ward-level Brexit voting figures and the number of patients stranded in hospitals. It has even led to the mass resignation of a parish council.

So FOI laws get here because they are hard to resist in opposition but hard to back out from in power. Even Lyndon Johnson signed the law and, as his Press Secretary pointed out, went and took all the credit for it afterwards.

The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power, is published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter one here and order the book here.This post was orginally on the Constitution Unit blog here

 


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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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Freedom of Information — why bother?

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‘Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”’ – Tony Blair.

Why do governments bother to pass Freedom of information laws? Here’s my attempt to explain why they bother to do something that appears ‘so utterly undermining of sensible government’ (Blair again) foia-why-bother-ben-worthy-freedom-of-information. This is, by the way, a blatant preview for my forthcoming book.

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United Kingdom End of Term Report 2013-2015

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My OGP IRM report is here for public comment on the UK government’s Second National Action Plan. Here’ s a summary:

The UK’s second action plan commitments on beneficial ownership, aid transparency, Sciencewise, and OpenDataCommunities are some examples of major contributions to government openness. Four commitments were closer to completion. However, progress overall in the rest of commitments was sustained from the assessment at mid-term. The third action plan has several commitments that flow from two priority areas and star commitments including beneficial ownership and extractives.”

You have until 18th January to offer any thoughts either via the page or by email to to irm@opengovpartnership.org.