Could the open government movement shut the door on Freedom of Information?

By: Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, London School of Economics and Political Science

For democracy to work, citizens need to know what their government is doing. Then they can hold government officials and institutions accountable.

Over the last 50 years, Freedom of Information – or FOI – laws have been one of the most useful methods for citizens to learn what government is doing. These state and federal laws give people the power to request, and get, government documents. From everyday citizens to journalists, FOI laws have proven a powerful way to uncover the often-secret workings of government.

But a potential threat is emerging – from an unexpected place – to FOI laws.

We are scholars of government administration, ethics and transparency. And our research leads us to believe that while FOI laws have always faced many challenges, including resistance, evasion, and poor implementation and enforcement, the last decade has brought a different kind of challenge in the form of a new approach to transparency.

Technology rules

The new kid on the block is the open government movement. And despite the fact that it shares a fundamental goal with the more established FOI movement – government transparency – the open government movement threatens to harm FOI by cornering the already limited public and private funding and government staffing available for transparency work.

The open government movement is driven by technology and seeks to make government operate in the open in as many ways as possible.

This includes not just letting citizens request information, as in FOI, but by making online information release an everyday routine of government. It also tries to open up government by including citizens more in designing solutions to public policy problems.

One example of this hands-on approach is through participatory budgeting initiatives, which allows citizens to help decide, via online and in-person information sharing and meetings, how part of the public budget is spent. Thus, while open government and FOI advocates both want government transparency, open government is a broader concept that relies more on technology and encourages more public participation and collaboration.

One type of open government initiative is data portals, such as Data.gov. Governments post lots of data that anyone can access and download for free on topics such as the environment, education and public safety.

Another popular open government reform is crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing asks the general public to come up with ideas to solve government problems or collect data for government projects. Two popular crowdsourcing initiatives in the U.S. are Challenge.gov and citizen science projects, such as the ones for Environmental Protection Agency where citizens are testing water quality.

Advocates of FOI and open government talk about them in similar ways and indeed participate in many of the same initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. That initiative is a global partnership of countries that develop multiple types of open government practices like anti-corruption programs, open budgets or crowdsourcing events.

Movements complement each other

The open government movement could help FOI implementation. Government information posted online, which is a core goal of open government advocates, can reduce the number of FOI requests. Open government initiatives can explicitly promote FOI by encouraging the passage of FOI laws, offering more training for officials who fill FOI requests, and developing technologies to make it easier to process and track FOI requests.

There’s a lot to the Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. Department of Justice

On the other hand, the relationship between open government and FOI may not always be positive in practice.

First, as with all kinds of public policy issues, resources – both money and political attention – are inherently scarce. Government officials now have to divide their attention between FOI and other open government initiatives. And funders now have to divide their financial resources between FOI and other open government initiatives.

Second, the open government reform movement as well as the FOI movement have long depended on nonprofit advocacy groups – from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and its state affiliates to the Sunlight Foundation – to obtain and disseminate government information. This means that the financial stability of those nonprofit groups is crucial. But their efforts, as they grow, may each only get a shrinking portion of the total amount of grant money available. Freedominfo.org, a website for gathering and comparing information on FOI laws around the world, had to suspend its operations in 2017 due to resources drying up.

We believe that priorities among government officials and good government advocates may also shift away from FOI. At a time when open data is “hot,” FOI programs could get squeezed as a result of this competition. Further, by allowing governments to claim credit for more politically convenient reforms such as online data portals, the open government agenda may create a false sense of transparency – there’s a lot more government information that isn’t available in those portals.

This criticism was leveled recently against Kenya, whose government launched a high-profile open data portal for publishing data on government performance and activities in 2011, yet delayed passage of an FOI law until 2016.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, one government minister said in 2012, “I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much data that people won’t have to ask for it.”

Open data, no substitute for FOI

But the World Wide Web Foundation, the founder of the global open data ranking system called the Open Data Barometer, reported in 2015 that the United Kingdom government was using its first place ranking in the Barometer to “justify a (government) mandate to review, and allegedly limit, the Freedom of Information Act.”

Open government programs not mandated by law are easier to roll back than legislatively mandated FOI programs. In the U.S., the Trump administration took down the White House open data portal. The move was immediately condemned by open government advocates, to no avail. In other cases, new open government efforts could hinder existing FOI implementation due to a limited number of staff members assigned to transparency work.

One indication of this is a 2015 Mexican reform that increased the categories of information that government agencies were required to post in the online Portal de Obligaciones de Transparencia.

But the job of identifying and digitizing this information was given to agencies’ existing FOI response units – without any additional staff or resources. This led to severe administrative burdens and, in some cases, slower response times to FOI requests. Meanwhile, the updated portal was criticized for a complicated interface and unreliable or missing information.

Is it possible for open government and FOI to avoid the mistakes seen in the Mexican case? Some experts are optimistic. Beth Simone Noveck, who served as the first United States deputy chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative from 2009 to 2011, suggests that “in the long term, FOIA and open data may themselves converge as we move to a future where all government data sits in a secure but readily-accessible cloud.”

The ConversationSuch a happy convergence would require a commitment by government to have any new or merged systems reflect the goals of both FOI and open government. That would mean a system that both supported existing avenues for transparency while also adding new ones. As scholars, we are unclear which direction government will take and thus, whether the public interest will ultimately be served.

Suzanne J. Piotrowski, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), Rutgers University Newark ; Alex Ingrams, Assistant Professor, Tilburg University, and Daniel Berliner, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Using open aid data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania

This post was originally published on the Open Data Charter website, written by Elise Dufief, Research and Monitoring Manager at Publish What You Fund

The government of Tanzania announced in August that it was withdrawing from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process. This was seen as a dramatic turn of events by some as the previous administration was regarded as a champion of transparency reforms. For others, it highlighted some of the challenges of international transparency initiatives and potentially offered an opportunity to reflect on how these initiatives could better respond to domestic issues and put citizens’ needs at their heart.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Tanzania and Benin and conducted interviews with representatives from government, donors and civil society organisations to investigate some of these issues. I looked into the opportunities and barriers for open aid data to be used as an accountability mechanism for partner country citizens. We at Publish What You Fund published a discussion paper earlier this month detailing the findings of our work.

Publish What You Fund, among other organisations, has argued that the public disclosure of information on development activities by major donors is an essential and necessary step to increase aid effectiveness. Substantial progress has been made at the international level through initiatives such as IATI and individual efforts of some major donors and governments to publish more and better quality development data. However, transparency alone is not sufficient as this information also needs to be used to promote accountability to local actors and respond to citizens’ needs.

We are also not the only ones reflecting on this. Organisations such as Oxfam and Open Contracting are also trying to find a constructive and collaborative way to move the transparency agenda forward and shed light on the necessary conditions for data to be used for accountability.

The new framework developed by Liz Carolan of the Open Data Charter, alongside the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, also helped shape our thinking on the matter. That study found 5 steps connecting open data and accountability: data production, sharing and processing, use and action. We proposed two additions to it: an initial step of identifying information needs and mapping potential users; and to also implement feedback mechanisms once data is made available to create a circular and iterative process from transparency to accountability.

Additionally, five key findings emerged from the interviews conducted in Benin and Tanzania:

1.There is a clear and repeated need for more high quality information on aid and development finance.

This was articulated clearly by donor country offices, government representatives and civil society organisations. Recent efforts to provide more information should be sustained and respond to these needs where possible.

2. International donor-led initiatives are not yet meeting country-level needs.

Tanzania’s withdrawal from the OGP is a manifestation of this. More attention needs to be paid to the national context and dynamics at play between different actors. This would help to identify where and how transparency and open data can help to improve development outcomes and accountability to citizens.

3. Both the development and data landscapes are fragmented and this is increasing.

The international development landscape increasingly involves more actors, more diverse flows and varied interests and objectives. In the absence of effective coordination, this complexity is reflected on the governance of data at country-level, also impeding its potential users.

4. A lack of trust in open data and its applications impedes its use as an accountability tool.

Data accuracy issues aside, examples from Tanzania and Benin demonstrated that more openness and transparency is sometimes met with fear of criticism and misinterpretation of the data. These are serious concerns that should be addressed. Shrinking civil society space and legislative restrictions to the access and use of this information, however, do not appear as viable solutions; they rather contradict the stated aim of the open data agenda.

5. With publication comes responsibility.

All actors have a responsibility to go beyond mere publication to make data truly accessible, usable and used. This requires putting people at the heart of transparency initiatives. It is only by working towards the identification of their needs, understanding their concerns and actively seeking their feedback that adequate responses and meaningful change will be implemented at country level. Data alone does not bring change. People do.

You can read our discussion paper ‘With Publication Brings Responsibility: Using open data for accountability in Benin and Tanzania’ here.