Etichettato: ben worthy

Regno Unito: un bilancio del Freedom of Information Act 10 anni dopo

Con l’inizio del 2015 il Freedom of Information Act inglese compie 10 anni.
Ripubblichiamo qui il bilancio di luci e ombre che ne fa il ricercatore Ben Worthy (pubblicato originariamente qui). Buona lettura e buon anno a tutti!

operation-unthinkableThe truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.

Tony Blair 2010

The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness.

House of Commons Justice Select Committee 2012 Post-Legislative Scrutiny of FOI

These two comments sum up the difficulties of measuring how successful the UK Freedom of Information Act has been. It isn’t just about statistics on numbers of requests, users or refusals (though there are some here if you are interested). What people think also shapes how it works and how others then behave. So a former Prime Minister sees it as one of his biggest mistakes while a Parliamentary committee see it as a vital part of democracy. Which is it?

What Does FOI look like?

One way to think about FOI is as an iceberg (as Nicola White said in her great book). iceberg

We can see only a small part of the overall process, those high level, often national FOI requests that attract controversy or attention-the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 was the big one that set off a chain reaction of resignations and reform.[i] There has also been FOI exposure of all sorts of subjects, from the Iraq war to health reform. In recent days, for example, we have had stories about where the Environment Agency invests its money, the number of pupils at new Free schools or the cost of green policies–see David Higgerson’s FOI Friday round-up for more.

But underneath this, there are a large number of requests, probably 90 % or more, that we don’t see. Our research found most requests go to local government, somewhere between 70 to 80 % or 3.5 to 4 in every five requests (see what the Justice Committee said here). These are about local or personal issues-waste, street fixing, tax and permits- that are often ‘under the radar’. That’s not to say they can’t be spectacular-Tony Blair probably never expected his new law would lead to us knowing that 3 people were banned from Birmingham’s new library for being too smelly or to theresignation en masse of Walberswick Parish council in Suffolk. But real FOI is local, focused and probably bringing hidden benefits we don’t easily see.

Who Uses FOI?

A key problem underlining all FOI analysis is the lack of knowledge about requesters and their motivations. The table below is based on estimates of requester types to central and local government from FOI officers.

Requester Local Government (%) Central Government (%)
Public    37 39
Journalist    33 8
Business    22 8
Academic    1–2 13

 

Contrary to the views of Tony Blair, FOI requesters are not just journalists. The largest group across central and local government appears to be members of the public. We felt that the public consists of a small group of politically engaged with a larger group pursuing issues of “micro-politics” or of private importance.

There is a clear rise and fall of public interest with the news agenda-snow leads to requests about snow plows, spying about government snooping levels. However, many requests were focused, “quite niche” or on “specialised” issues- a planning dispute or parking fine at local level or access to benefits at central government (or even who was paid what to switch on the town Christmas lights).

Requesters’ motivations were also diverse. Even the small sample of requesters we found and spoke to in our studies gave a huge variety of reasons for using FOI, from “concern about wasted money” to “curiosity”, “general interest” and personal campaigns against “corrupt” local government. So, the sheer variability of requester motivations and use underscores the variability of impact of the Act upon different public bodies.

Who’s Against It? Fighting on the Border

FOI has been subject to clear ‘battle’ over how the Act is working, with a public divide between sceptical (mainly) senior politicians and officials and supporters of the Act in the media, NGOs and the appeal system.

The extent to which FOI is supported varies across departments and local government bodies, dependent on the individual leadership, culture and environment of different public bodies. On the whole, government officials support the Act and work with it.

While welcoming it as an idea, senior politicians have been less keen on the loss of control or unexpected issues or scandals sprung on them. As well as claiming it is vaguely ‘abused’, a number of senior officials and politicians have argued that FOI negatively affects decision-making processes, though we found there was no real evidence for this (which didn’t stop some rather interesting anecdotes to the Select Committee). While Tony Blair was clear in his views that FOI was an all-round disaster, David Cameron’s more subtle approach has been to argue that ‘real freedom of Information’ was about ‘spending’ while other requests ‘furred up the arteries’ of government-a comment that revealed a very particular view of what information rights ‘should’ be used for.

Numerous politicians have also highlighted the ‘cost’ of FOI, though, like many economic arguments, this is actually smokescreen for a political debate. And when different studies have concluded that requests costs either £200, £36 or £19 each, the discussion becomes a little confusing (see this post here and a longer report here). The danger is that all this combined negativity may encourage poor behaviour and lead to a small ‘anti- FOI’ group at the very top of government. While, for example, Blair’s claim that FOI is used only by journalists is demonstrably untrue, it adds to a distorted view of FOI.

On the other side of the divide, FOI has a clear constituency of supporters in the media, Parliament and across various NGOs as well as in the courts and the appeal system. Supported by high profile cases such as MPs’ expenses, the symbolic importance of FOI legislation offers the reform a robust protection, backed up by a powerful and vocal constituency. Supporters of the Act have constantly innovated, pushed key cases and also sought to persuade successive governments to extend the Act private bodies working on behalf of public authorities.

Since 2005, but gathering pace since Tony Blair’s comments in 2010, there remains a continuous ‘fighting on the borders’ over where the Act begins and ends and whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In 2009, supporters scored some success by persuading Gordon Brown to shorten the period of disclosure of historical records from 30 to 20 years. David Cameron’s Transparency Agenda has undoubtedly helped push further openness, as have events like the Hillsborough inquiry.

However, at the same time the scepticism from the top of government has encouraged a series of attempts to restrict the Act. This included an attempt to change the costing regime in 2006, to remove Parliament from the ambit of the Act in 2006-2007 and introduce greater protections for Cabinet documents in 2010. Only the removal of the Monarch and heir from the Act was successful, probably because it went largely unnoticed (though the Monarchy is not out of the woods yet). As of writing now, the government has hinted that it may seek to limit what it ambiguously describes as ‘industrial’ users, though this close to a General Election it’s unlikley. The fact that all but one attempt was seen off shows how strong FOI’s support base is. For now…

And so?

FOI appears to be a success and is (probably) here to stay. This is not just about numbers- it is supported, used and co-operated with by most officials. It can, and does, bring very public benefits and may also be locally bringing positive outcomes we don’t see.

It has not only led to new issues on the agenda (not least the UK’s role both in extraordinary rendition and covering it up) but also helped in the creation of a new watchdog to regulate MPs’ expenses and a change in the law over the tax status of members of the House of Lords. It has also kicked off developments like mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow and has popped up in all sorts of interesting areas, such as the app that lets you know if politicians are editing Wikipedia pages.

It is not without its difficulties or problems-it can be abused, misused or misunderstood. All openness brings problems of one kind or another. But the disruption and uncertainty may be an essential part of any openness law. One way of thinking of FOI is as a form of turbulence-an instrument of unpredictability, like e-petitions. So Tony Blair’s complaints may be (in part) a sign of the Act doing its job well. It is its very unpredictability and annoyance that makes it powerful. As I’ve said elsewhere, it also enshrines an important principle-but not one that lets politicians sleep soundly in their beds.[ii]

Further reading

Justice Committee (2012) Post-legislative Review of Freedom of Information here

Worthy, Ben and Hazell, Robert, The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act in the UK (August 26, 2013). Nigel Bowles, James T Hamilton, David Levy (eds) Transparency in Politics and the Media: Accountability and Open Government, London: L.B. Tauris, 31-45, 2013. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2487541 and work by the Constitution Unit here.

 

[i] I’m obliged to point out the scandal was a combination of an FOI request by Heather Brooke, four years of appeals, a court case and (finally) a good old fashioned paid for leak.

[ii] I shamelessly borrowed this from Orwell’s definition of liberty ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ (from his unpublished preface to Animal Farm) and tried to rework this to fit transparency: ‘Transparency is the right to ask questions those in power don’t want asked and look for information they don’t want us to see’ see this post.

P.S. for anyone interested, the pictured document comes from Churchill’s 1945 planning for the very aptly named ‘Operation Unthinkable’ his appraisal of the consequences of a war between the US/UK and the the USSR

[RESEARCH] Making Transparency Stick: The Dynamics of Open Data

As part of our research efforts, here’s the another update on the most important research on FOI and open data all over the world, by our intern Alexandre Salha, a researcher who worked on access to information in his native Lebanon. Today’s analysis focuses on the effectiveness of open data policy, as explored in a paper by researcher Ben Worthy.

#opengov (publicity, accountability, transparency) venn diagram - Foto di Justin Grimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)https://www.flickr.com/photos/notbrucelee/6166628554
#opengov (publicity, accountability, transparency) venn diagram – Foto di Justin Grimes (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In this paper, Ben Worthy identifies – based on the UK reform – the indicators of successful and/or failing Open Data policies.

In fact, he argues, the fate of these policies depends on the synergy built between enactment and post-enactment. Plus “policy feedback” plays an important role in assessing the impact of any reform. A strong feedback is able to build collective support among all involved actors to remake politics.

The Open Data policy in this paper is summarized under the UK’s Transparency Agenda which includes sub-policies:

  • Publishing spending data

  • Publishing service data

  • Platforms

  • Running experiments

  • Legal reforms

  • Charters and international agreements

During the enactment phase, Worthy identifies the Vision, the Symbolism and the Mechanics of Open Data policy.

First, “the vision of Open Data is powerful yet vague”. Under the umbrella of transparency, it has political, social and economic impacts on the nation as a whole. It can be used to promote more accountability, to develop public participation and/or to enhance economic growth and innovation. Hence Open Data is also unclear.

Some mistaken thoughts about technology of Open Data being as a solution for political problems are made, a very deterministic thought, standing between technology of Open Data and the politics of Open Government.

Second, Open Data is a symbolic policy yet voteless. According to Worthy, it offers on one side, transformative opportunities to remake politics under the democratic values, such as accountability, participation and empowerment; but, on the other side, although it attracts political support, it bring no electoral advantages.

Continuare la lettura

[GUEST] What Happens When You Publish Salaries?

Secondo appuntamento con Ben Worthy per parlare dell’impatto degli open data.
Il post originale è stato pubblicato qui lo scorso luglio. 

gi_chart

The publication of what public officials earn was one of the big headline grabbing policies of the government’s Transparency Agenda back in 2010. From MPs’ expenses to the pay levels of senior Civil Servants, publication of who gets what is always tricky and sensitive- and often leads to ‘rich lists’ like this one. Now it may be the turn of high-earning academics to disclose what they earn, given this recent ICO decision in relation to Kings College London-see the background here.

The idea is that publication of salaries leads to the reigning in of large salaries, as public bodies cut back due to embarrassment or because others take action to reduce them. This also plays into a wider story, that looks set to be part of the General Election battle, about income inequality (you can see some interesting ONS statistics on earnings here).

As ever, the US is far ahead in the publishing of salaries. The Missouri Accountability Portal allows you to see all employees’ salaries at the push of a button. However, a study of public sector disclosure legislation in Canada (looking at academics) found no decrease insalaries after publication (and pointed out, bless them, that academics were paid less than they should be). Ontario’s so-called ‘Sunshine List’ of high earners made no difference either.

More interestingly, some research reveals publication of salaries actually has the opposite effect to that intended and is rather wonderfully counter-productive. This study of German CEOs found that when their salaries were published, other senior salaries went up as colleagues became aware of how much their colleagues earned and then pressured or negotiated for a pay rise. Rather than leading to cutting back or embarrassment, it led others to say ‘why aren’t I getting that much’?

The constant focus on ‘pay’ misses out a potentially more important discussion about performance – this study indicates some of the top US CEOs were getting better rewarded for poorer performances. Perhaps we could try and see if the Civil Servants paid more than the Prime Minister are doing a better job than he is? This points to a further difficulty that those in business do not have-given that neither MPs nor the Prime Minister have a formal job description, what constitutes a ‘good’ performance for a politician?