Research on Open Data and Transparency

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


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?


‘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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Does FOI Work?


We tried to find out with this experiment, with a little help from English parish councils. See the full article here.


‘How effective are systems of transparency, such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests? The ambitious aims of FOI laws hinge on whether requests produce the desired information for the citizens or groups that use them. The question is whether such legally mandated requests work better than more informal mechanisms. Despite the high hopes of advocates, organizational routines, lack of awareness or resistance may limit legal access and public bodies may seek to comply minimally rather than behave in concordance with the spirit of the law. This article reports a field experiment that compared FOI requests and informal nonlegal asks to assess which is more effective in accessing information from English parish councils. The basic premise of statutory access is borne out. FOI requests are more effective than simple asks and the size or preexisting level of openness of a body appears to make little difference to their responsiveness. FOI requests are more effective in encouraging bodies to do more than the law asks (concordance) than encouraging more minimal levels of legal cooperation, when a body simply fulfils its obligations to varying degrees (compliance). This finding indicates high levels of support for FOI once it is embedded within the system.’

parish-council-4wSee our blog summary and also FOI man’s blog post and analysis.

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New Paper: Freedom of Information and the Media


The media are a powerful constituency of users, lobbyists and defenders of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. Looking at FOI regimes across the world, it argues that the media are important users but also powerful innovators and defenders. This chapter examines how journalists use the laws in the UK and work to protect and extend it. It also looks at how media use is seen to damage trust in the political system and can generate resistance from government. It ends by arguing that FOI must be viewed in context and now fits within a rapidly changing information eco-system and a shifting and hybrid media environment.


Download here

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What’s Going On? More evidence on FOI in the UK

Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information

Labour Party Call for Evidence on the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 (see the pdf here Ben Worthy Labour Call For Evidence on FOI)

Dr Ben Worthy

Birkbeck College, University of London


  1. What have been the strengths and weaknesses of the Act and the way in which it is currently working? Specific examples pertaining to you or your organisation may be provided.*

1.1 Our research found that, in terms of strengths, FOI has made British government more transparent and more accountable. FOI’s very unpredictability may be a powerful force for by changing behaviour.  Its deeper impact on democracy is less clear. This is not because FOI has failed but simply because changing levels of, for example, participation and public trust are complex- FOI alone is unlikely to make a difference. FOI can be best seen as part of a wider political ecosystem of formal and informal mechanisms designed to scrutinise government.

1.2 Like all FOI regimes, it has suffered delay, uncertainty and unexpected effects. There is less evidence for any of the weaknesses claimed by politicians. Our work concluded that FOI has not had any significant impact on the decision-making process or some of the key constitutional conventions. It does not appear to have led to a chilling effect.

To understand how FOI works, it is necessary to remember:

1.3 FOI is dynamic, and changes over time depending on use, legal rulings and political reforms. It is a constantly changing law that inevitably generates uncertainty.

1.4 The benefits of FOI may be local and hidden. Use is heavily orientated towards local government, with nearly four in every five made to local councils. Most FOI requests are ‘micro-political’, seeking factual information and generally involve matters of private interest, focusing on specialised local or personal issues—waste, street fixing, tax and permits—that don’t attract attention.

1.5 It is about perceptions as well as reality. Understanding how FOI works is not just about what is happening, in terms of statistics or law, but what people claim is happening-so is shaped by perceptions of politicians and the headlines it generates.

  1. Whether Act provides a sensible balance between transparency and “safe space” for the internal deliberations of public bodies. Specific examples may be provided.*

2.1 There is currently a sensible balance. As I pointed out to the Commission, looking at the section 35 and 36 exemptions, there remains, and may always be, uncertainty. However, the Commissioner and Tribunal have sought to protect ‘safe space’, dependent on the time period and sensitivity of the information.

2.2 FOI has not caused a ‘chilling effect’ on frank advice and deliberation, or on the quality of government records. The myth persists, but convincing evidence proved hard to find. Our own studies across central and local government between 2008 and 2011 were able to discover only a few clear examples, which were minor and isolated. There was no systematic or large scale changes to either minutes or free and frank discussion as a result of FOI. Our and other work FOI can also have a positive effect, professionalising records as a ‘disciplining’ rather than a ‘chilling’ effect.

  1. Whether there are any areas in the Act that could be improved, for instance, extending the Act to some private organisations or businesses in receipt of public money or carrying out public functions. Specific examples may be provided.*

3.1 Although it remains a ‘complex’ legal grey area, section 5 allows government to extend the law to cover companies within the scope of the Act. This change has been previously discussed at length in the UK between 2007 and 2009 and under the separate Scottish FOI Act on two occasions—resulting in limited extension to leisure trusts in 2012 with possible further coverage of housing associations and private prisons mooted for 2015-2016.

3.2 The Coalition and now the new Conservative government took a different approach of contractual enforcement. Rather than extending the Act under section 5, they have championed the use of new FOI clauses in public sector contracts. It’s not exactly clear how far this is working.

3.3 There has been some gradual natural ‘creeping’ outwards of FOI. Network Rail became subject to the Act in March 2015 due to a change in accountancy designation. Other new bodies covered since 2005 include exam boards, what was formerly ACPO, free schools (once they are open) and Police and Crime Commissioners (though this report was ‘deeply’ worried about how transparent they were-see page 11-12). The Police Federation is now set to follow.

3.4 More significant than this ‘creep’ is the influence of legal decisions from appeal bodies and the courts. A legal ruling in 2015 Fish Legal v Information Commissioner and others over FOI’s sister Environmental Information Regulations appeared to extend the law to water companies-and this may potentially include other utilities too.

3.5 The issue of extension remains a political one. Public sector contracts to private providers are currently worth around £93 billion per year according to the ICO. A UK tracker found 75% of respondents seeing extension as an ‘important’ issue . Polling by the Scottish Information Commissioner showed that extension is supported by the public. A full 76% of Scots asked felt private prisons should be covered with 79% believing that housing associations should be as well.

3.6 Any politician pushing for any large scale opening up, such as using section 5, faces three main problems

  • First, there may be a potential reluctance to cooperate or publish and an enforcement difficulty in making companies do so. Although our study of FOI and local government found that most companies cooperate with FOI requests, any sceptical business can argue it is (i) unnecessary as so much information is published anyway (ii) a costly burden-see this analysis here.
  • Second, added to this may be the complexity any change involves, that will take time and en The devil, as someone warned of extractives, is in the detail and how it interacts with other systems. So, for example, the UK’s push to open up Beneficial Ownership is slightly stymied by the fact that the EU equivalent will only be partially open.
  • Third, given these problems there needs to be a lot of political will, energy and attention to follow through. Any politician or party pushing large scale openness needs either a very good reason or very strong principles. Most likely it will only happen when there is a very obvious problem to solve or a very obvious political benefit (or both).

3.7 FOI extension is not the only way forward and the Information Commissioner has recently offered a range of options to fill the ‘transparency gap’.

  1. How does the cost of operating the Act compare to other types of public expenditure; and should the threshold for refusals on cost grounds by public authorities be raised or not.*

4.1 There is an ongoing debate about how much FOI ‘costs’, also part of the FOI Commission’s investigation. Costs are often discussed within the context of whether the Act is being ‘abused’ by the media or troublemakers. A number of submissions to the Independent Commission complained of the resource burden. There appears to be some support for a form of charging from some, but not all, officials.

4.2 Measuring the ‘cost’ of FOI is problematic as it involves balancing administrative resources against democratic benefits. Moreover, the exact cost of FOI is very unclear and any figure, high or low, can be challenged. Methodologically it is almost impossible to obtain a precise figure on the cost of FOI. Estimates range from an average of £350 to £36 per request. The Daily Telegraph calculated FOI used up 0.0016% of the overall central government budget and 0.018% of local government.

4.3 FOI requests become more elaborate but public authorities deal more efficiently with them over time – annual surveys by UCL between 2005 and 2010 found a sharp drop in time taken for organisations to process requests, falling by more than 50% in 5 years.

  1. Whether the Act has achieved its objectives and made public authorities more open and accountable. Specific examples may be provided.*

5.1 Our studies of the six objectives of FOI concluded that the core objectives of greater transparency and accountability were achieved.

5.2 FOI has increased transparency. All the evidence showed that the amount of information released has increased across a vast range of subjects from nuclear convoys to Ministerial gifts and from parking fines to councillors’ expenses. It has also led to increasingly open cultures within organisations and to the now regular pro-active release of a variety of information. The exact impact varied as local government was already fairly open and parts of central government less so. Some Whitehall departments still struggle due to senior attitudes or simply the nature of the information they deal with.

5.4 FOI has increased accountability across central and local government and all the way to the police, NHS and Monarchy. It has been used by the media, MPs and campaigners to make government more accountable. Eye catching examples include the role of FOI in kick starting the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, as part of a wider chain of accountability, and the mass resignation of an entire parish council in Walberwick in Sussex in 2012. But the extent to which FOI can be used to increase accountability on a more day-to-day level is dependent on whether other actors (the media, NGOs, etc.) are willing and able to make use of it.

5.5 FOI is frequently used alongside other tools of accountability often as part of a process of building a larger picture, or putting together pieces of a jigsaw as in the case of extraordinary rendition or a nationwide campaign against library closures. Below are a selection of high profile or influential requests:

  1. Extraordinary rendition-the UK’s involvement in extraordinary was revealed by FOIs from the All-Party Group on extraordinary rendition.
  2. Details of the Universal Credit welfare reforms
  3. The Libor banking scandal and knowledge of it
  4. Lists of visitors to the Prime Ministerial residence at Chequers (and Ministerial meetings and diaries now proactively released)
  5. Creation of the famous ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ dossier
  6. The Monarch’s involvement in vetoing legislation
  7. The results of local restaurant hygiene inspections
  8. The planned closure of local libraries up and down the country
  1. Whether the Ministerial veto has been used appropriately and whether the Supreme Court ruling has undermined that.*

6.1 Before the Supreme Court ruling, the veto worked well, limited by the ‘exceptional’ nature and political reluctance. Consequently, it was rarely used, especially when compared with other FOI regimes. Any future veto power should be kept as close as possible to the precise, limited and ‘exceptional’ model that existed previously.

Further Reading see:

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


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.


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

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A New Front? FOI and Universities


According to the Guardian, the government is now floating the possibility of excluding universities from FOI. The green paper on Higher Education states on pg. 69:

Public body requirements
17. There are a number of requirements placed on HEFCE-funded providers which do not apply to alternative providers. Many derive from treating HEFCE-funded providers as ‘public bodies’. This is despite the fact that the income of nearly all of these providers is no longer principally from direct grant and tuition fee income is not treated as public funding. Alternative providers are not treated as public bodies. As a result there is an uneven playing field in terms of costs and responsibilities. For example, the cost to providers of being within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is estimated at around £10m per year.

18. In principle, we want to see all higher education providers subject to the same requirements, and wherever possible we are seeking to reduce burdens and deregulate. However we may wish to consider some exceptions to this general rule if it were in the interest of students and the wider public.

You can see the paper here. FOI controversy has circled around universities for some time now, over climate change, level playing fields and the broader issue of access to research data. In 2014 section 22 of the Act was amended to give universities a research exemption and there has been a constant ‘hum’ of debate about whether they should be completely removed from the Act given that private universities are not covered. Is this a new front in the battle over FOI?

For more on FOI and academia you can see the Constitution Unit’s 2012 survey of university FOI officers here and this short article Worthy_et_al-2012-Political_Insight


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Battle lines Being Drawn?


Last week, Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling made a series of comments on FOI use by journalists:

It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how governments make decisions, and this government does not intend to change that

So Matt Burgess (and others) responded with some examples of how FOI requests by journalists has made a difference-there’s 103 examples here. You can see here for some analysis of the evdience of who uses FOI.

Now the head of Wolverhampton council, Keith Ireland, has waded in at a Scrutiny Board Meeting

The vast majority of requests come from media across the country, be that the BBC, local media, or media in general.They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research. Others come from big companies who can’t be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation. It is a really costly exercise. The original principal of FOI is not what is happening in reality.

He claimed, in addition, that it cost around £500,000 to process requests [see here for the tricky topic of how much FOI costs]. Just to make life even more interesting (and FOI even more political), it appears Labour may be setting up its own FOI Commission

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Analysis of the Draft Italian Freedom of Information Law


See the Italian Draft Freedom of Information law here

Here is my analysis:


The legislation is clear, succinct and well-constructed. Particularly noteworthy are:

  • A strong and clear purpose clause at the outset, emphasising the importance of transparency to the workings of Italian democracy and access to information as a right. This is important in sending a signal to those working with the legislation of its importance and can also play a part in determining later legal rulings
  • The law is wide in applicability including a variety of public bodies and entities providing a public service.
  • There are clearly expressed exemptions and a public interest test mechanism.
  • There is a good oversight regime located in an already established body.
  • Importantly there is a clear sensitivity to data protection and privacy.

Thoughts on the Proposed Legislation

The Request

  • The request can normally be made by anyone with a valid email address.
  • The draft law states a ‘name and address’ but that could be clarified to explain it does not mean a residential place (i.e. home) but simply an email.
  • Some thought could be given to the form of requests, as the UK also now allows requests via social media-see page 22 of this guidance from the UK Information Commissioner.

The Appeal System

  • The appeal timelines may prove difficult to work in practice. The draft law gives a rather short time limit of 30 days. All FOI regimes are affected by delay and appeal systems particularly so. The danger with such a timeframe is that delay will build up and slow down the system with a detrimental effect on confidence.
  • Across different FOI regimes there is discussion as to whether any appeal body dealing with FOI should either (i) work closely with (ii) be the same body as that which oversees Data Protection appeals. Many appeals and complex requests concern the interaction/tension between the two principles.
  • There is also an issue of who the appeal system reports to e.g. is it government or the legislature. This may lend a body independence politically and help in terms of resources.

Duty to help and assist see UK

  • One very basic but helpful feature of an FOI law can be a statutory duty on authorities to assist requesters with their questions i.e. to help. See below for an example from the UK law where a body must ‘advise and assist’ e.g. in how to refine a request:

‘16 Duty to provide advice and assistance.

(1)It shall be the duty of a public authority to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it.

(2)Any public authority which, in relation to the provision of advice or assistance in any case, conforms with the code of practice under section 45 is to be taken to comply with the duty imposed by subsection (1) in relation to that case.

Pro-Active Publication

  • The draft law contains some interesting ideas on pro-active publication and how it can be promoted. The republication idea here is a good one.
  • Evidence from different systems points to ‘Publication Schemes’ (i.e. mandated searchable lists of available documents displayed by each public body) as being rather outdated and rarely used by the public.
  • One more promising feature are ‘disclosure logs’ whereby all previous requests and answers are listed and can be searched publically (also useful for the public body to be able to search for answers to repeat requests). Here is an example from the UK Ministry of Justice and this one from local government body Coventry City council which has a breakdown of topics and a search engine.
  • Many countries are also adopting central online portals for FOI-see the US central FOI computer system e.g. US FOIA portal or Mexican Federal tracking system.

Coverage of the Act: Covering new bodies

  • Many laws contain a power for Ministers to add new bodies to the legislation as they are created-see here for the section of the UK law
  • One body frequently discussed is Parliament. Many legislatures are partially covered for ‘administrative’ aspects of their work while the more party political aspects of their work and other confidential areas (e.g. correspondence between constituents and Members, the private work of committees) are restricted. In the UK the Speakers of both Chambers are given an exemption power to cover Parliamentary privilege (that is actually rarely used).
  • The President /Quirinale should also be covered. There may be a similar need to cover some potentially sensitive correspondence as happens elsewhere.
  • Other bodies of note include the police and health authorities.

Coverage of the Act: Private Bodies

  • This a key area as privatisation and public-private partnerships mean private companies carry out more and more public work.
  • Some FOI regimes actually cover of private bodies-both the Nigerian and South African laws cover private entities in certain situations. It is not clear how effective these parts of the legislation are or if they have significantly opened up private bodies.
  • India has a different approach where you can use the Act to find out if the government is investigating a particular body, and access the information that way- see this blog for a discussion.
  • The Irish FOI Act can potentially cover any body in receipt of ‘substantial’ funding from government.
  • UK has currently opted for the insertion of standard transparency clauses in contracts with providers. There are numerous other options-see this discussion document from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Oversight/Implementation [including thoughts on once the law is passed]

  • Separate from the appeal system, there is a need for a body to oversee implementation, particularly in the early years to promote the Act and ensure standards.
  • In New Zealand there was a specific body, the ‘Information Authority’, external to government that promoted the Act and provided guidance and information that was then disbanded after 5 years.
  • The UK had a body within the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs called the Information Clearing House that was more practical and dealt with compliance, requests across government and maintaining standards. Again, this was disbanded after a number of years.
  • It is important that public bodies maintain and publish statistics on use of the Act and requests made to them for monitoring purposes and to get a sense of how the Act is working.
  • A further important factor is to ensure political support, to persuade and create compliance, and gathering of evidence to offset concerns/anxiety among government. Frequently there are
    • Concerns over resource costs (often a camouflage for a political discussion-see this paper from Ireland and this from the UK Constitution Unit)
    • Concerns over decision-making and procedures (well protected decision-making exemptions/exclusions are the answer)
    • Concerns over ‘abuse’ (this is often centred on ‘vexatious’ requesters and journalists but here statistics and positive examples can help)
  • Publicity is important in raising awareness among the public and encouraging use-the Scottish Information Commissioner ran a series of TV advertisements to encourage use and India has a state run TV show on its Right to Information Act.
  • Legislation can also usefully be reviewed by Parliamentary Committees at certain intervals once the law is in place. In the UK, for example, a Parliamentary Select Committee reviewed the Act one year on and there was further detailed post-legislative scrutiny in 2012.

Further Links

  • Analysis of the Italian law by the Centre for Law and Democracy here
  • UK Post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee in 2012 see here.
  • Analysis of a number of older FOI regimes from 1999 based on the UK’s draft FOI see here.

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Michael Gove, FOI and Lyndon Johnson


Michael Gove on a school visit

The last week or so has not been kind to FOI. Last Thursday it appeared that the government was pursuing retention and deletion policies which involved deleting emails after 90 days. On Tuesday we saw Iain Duncan Smith’s apparent refusal to publish statistics relating to those dying after having had their benefits cut. It now seems that new Justice Secretary Michael Gove would like to look into reform of FOI. He said during questions in Parliament yesterday that

 …we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted.

 The effect of FOI on policy discussions generates lots of heat but very little evidence. Tony Blair claimed FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions. Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell also claimed it has ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer isolated examples-one hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations, one of the most unique and unusual political events in recent decades.

There are two problems with the idea that FOI has cramped decision-making or led to changes in records. One, it’s very difficult to prove or disprove. The Justice Committee ‘was not able to conclude, with any certainty, that a chilling effect has resulted from the FOI Act’ and also felt the protections for policy were more than sufficient. Our own studies found a few examples but no systematic changes-and also many officials more concerned about the dangers of not having a record if a judge came knocking.

Two, it’s also very difficult to prove that any changes are a result of FOI. Many, many things cause records to change-lack of resources, leaks, the arrival of iphones, emails, even changing decision-making styles (‘sofa government’ anyone?). Holding just FOI responsible seems a little skewed.

But the claim won’t go away. This is partly psychological. Politicians believe it happens and keep repeating it, so it then becomes true to them. It is a rather wonderful example of a self-confirming myth, especially as the myth itself may then make people wary. It is, of course, more politically, a convenient and half acceptable way of attacking FOI, for those politicians who don’t like the disruption FOI brings.

Michael Gove is by no means the first to suggest ‘amending FOI’. Here’s a quick list of the many attempts by governments of all shades to change the law, either coming from government or Parliament since 2005:

  • Introduce fees or change the cost limits (2006)
  • Remove Parliament (2007)
  • Removal of Monarch and Heir (2010)
  • Clampdown on ‘industrial users’ (2012-2013)
  • Amend the veto (2015)

Interestingly, only one has succeeded so far, removing the Monarch and Heir (done by the Labour government but, because it commenced in 2011, blamed on the coalition) . This change, probably not incidentally, was the one that got least press coverage.

So why have all but one of these attempts failed? FOI is very powerful as a symbol. It also has lots of supporters in Parliament, the media and among NGOs. This is especially the case in the UK where ‘FOI’ is linked to the magic words ‘MPs’ Expenses’. Trying to cut back on FOI instantly galvanises this opposition and, almost by default, makes you look secretive-see the Daily Mail from yesterday. It won’t necessarily lose you votes but it provokes political pain for little gain.

Which takes us to Gove’s idol, President Lyndon Johnson (see this speech). Many politicians support FOI through gritted teeth (see Daniel Berliner’s great paper here). LBJ was the ultimate reluctant supporter, who fought the original US FOI bill all the way and had to be persuaded out of vetoing it by his press secretary, who whispered gently in his ear and later recalled:

 LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing… He 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.

 He then went out, as Moyers points, to take all the credit for it.


LBJ may also offer FOI skeptics another lesson. Johnson was the ultimate backroom politician. His career, such as his spectacular time as Majority Leader of the Senate or passing civil rights legislation in the 1960s, was based on secrecy, information control and holding back on telling anyone more than they need to know, which was often far from the truth. And this, ultimately, was his undoing. His credibility gap on the Great Society and Vietnam stemmed from his being too secretive as reality exposed his untruths and many distortions.

Politicians naturally fear exposure or openness that may damage them. But hiding things or trying to back track brings pain too and Cameron’s decision to publish the benefits figures is a wise one, given the attention not disclosing them attracted. Can politicians like Michael Gove, who cast themselves in the mould of LBJ as populist warriors, go a step further and embrace the radicalism of FOI?