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FOI truths, or myths?

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:59 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

Here are three statements frequently made about freedom of information:

  • Freedom of information is for the ordinary citizen
  • There would be no need for FOI requests if government published more information proactively
  • Freedom of information has a chilling effect on the quality of advice and the public record
I have certainly heard all three statements frequently. But are they true? Not according to a new analysis of how FOI has worked in practice since it came into force in the UK in 2005. The researchers involved in the study, academics based at the Constitution Unit at University College, London, maintain that they are simply powerful myths.

Based on their detailed evaluation of the impact of FOI on Whitehall, Robert Hazell, Ben Worthy and Mark Glover argue that FOI is not much used by ordinary citizens, that more proactive publication is unlikely to anticipate what FOI requesters actually want, and that they could find "very little evidence" of a significant chilling effect.

Their research is reported in a recently published book, The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does FOI Work?. So, does FOI work? The authors conclude that it does in some ways and it doesn't in other ways.

They say it makes government more open and accountable, promotes efficiency and acts as a check on the integrity of government. But it doesn't produce better decision-making, increase public participation or encourage trust in government.

I can see how these conclusions make sense, given the sort of material which has actually been released under freedom of information. Facts and figures about the spending of public money, the performance of public services, the statistical measurement of government activities - FOI has thrust a lot of this information into the public domain, and there are now many well-established precedents for disclosure of such data.

But compared to what many expected there has been a thinner supply of releases relating to policy debate, internal discussion and decision-making processes. And Whitehall is often, though not always, highly resistant to revealing this kind of information.

For some that is a disappointing outcome. For others who are worried about the threat of a chilling effect undermining the frankness of advice and discussion, it may be a good thing - even if it means that freedom of information hasn't achieved the rather grand goal of empowering the public that Tony Blair proclaimed for it, before he decided that FOI wasn't such a good idea after all.

[Declaration of interest: I was one of those interviewed by the Constitution Unit researchers for their report.]


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