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….
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.
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.