Savita Bailur, LSE/Caribou Digital
In what circumstances, if any, can the Freedom of Information websites be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?
With much emphasis on open data on government websites, a quieter cousin with potentially greater accessibility and usage for the ordinary citizen is the ability to make freedom of information requests to governments around the world -not necessarily in open data format, but using the premise that a government response is a legal obligation. Over 100 countries have implemented freedom of information laws, but only a handful are beginning to use websites to submit these requests. One specific platform is Alaveteli, a software designed by mySociety in the UK, but free and open to use by anyone around the world. This research builds on an independent evaluation of mySociety and other freedom of information sites.
First, a comprehensive literature review on any available material on freedom of information online was conducted. This briefly included a comparison between the open data and freedom of information movements and the relative advantages and disadvantages of both to the ""ordinary citizen"" (while accepting that this is a generic term). Second, we analysed usage statistics from 27 freedom of information sites around the world and conducted interviews in late 2014 with those who had implemented them. These included the sites RighttoKnow (Australia), PravoDaZnam (Bosnia), Je Veux Savoir (Canada/Qu.bec), Informace pro va_echny (Czech Republic), AsktheEU.org (European Union), Guateinformada (Guatemala), KiMitTud (Hungary), Ask Data (Israel), Italy (Diritto di Sapere), Informatazyrtare (Kosovo), !_;_>_1_>_4_5_=‘?_@_8_A_B_0_?’(Macedonia), FYI (New Zealand), NuVa╪_Supa╪_rat,i.info (Romania), AskAfrica (South Africa), TuDerechoaSaber (Spain), Marsoum41 (Tunisia), Ask Your Gov (Uganda), and __>_A_B_C_?’4_>‘?_@_0_2_4_8_. (Ukraine), .Quщ. Sabщs? (Uruguay) and WhatDoTheyKnow (United Kingdom).
First, we found that most platforms had been developed between 2011 and 2013, and therefore with very early signs of uptake. The UK website, WhatDo TheyKnow was by far the most used with an equivalent high number of responses and therefore what we would describe as the most successful. The platforms that achieve the most dramatic growth were in the Czech Republic and Ukraine, largely because of a select number of super users who find the platforms useful (in both cases journalists). ""Measurable impact"" is hard to ascertain, as in many cases the websites are still trying to get off the ground, and the implementers at the awareness raising stage. Implementers face a mix of indifference, evasiveness and shortfalls in capacity from government. Even where conditions are favourable for an FOI platform, such as where there is a high level of basic digital coverage in government, our findings show that implementers always have to fight for the platform’s use to be normalised by officials (although there is always internal variability in government responses).
The information most commonly requested by users of FOI platforms is financial, relating to government salaries and public expenditure. Most implementers see a need for general awareness-raising and targeting specific potential users (journalists, CSOs, civic activists), but few felt they had the resource to do so at any scale. Many of the implementers referred to the need by users to find the ""next MP expenses scandal"". Although there were a few instances of journalists using these sites (as mentioned, particularly in Ukraine and Czech Republic), as yet there is insufficient usage by journalists, who continue to operate in the ""leak culture"" and for whom the usual 30 day response timelines are too long. A key benefit of sites operating on Alaveteli is the transparency, as the sites publish all previous requests and the response trail. Publishing and archiving define the most distinctive aspect of FOI platforms like Alaveteli, which is the shift in control over the existence and authenticity of the FOI dialogue to the platform implementer and user. In this sense, the ""glare effect"" and transparency of technology is critical.
We find a number of other interesting outcomes, which we will enter into in more detail in the full paper.
Freedom of information sites in theory are an enormous asset to the government transparency and accountability agenda globally. However, there is insufficient research as yet on how they are being used and what impact they may be having. Our preliminary findings suggest that it is the glare effect of previous responses and the response trail being published which make them particularly attractive as opposed to one-to-one private responses through email or other between requester and civil servant or government information provider. However, our research also uncovers a large number of risks and challenges, as well as obstacles presented in various contexts (for example a number of the sites we initially researched have since shut down, including most notably in Spain despite an active campaign), which we will enter into in more detail in the full paper.