Can you measure democracy by its freedom of information? Four hypothesis in search of answers

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What is the relationship between FOIA’s age and its acceptance and use?  I have thought that there may be a resistance to FOIA in the UK for the following institutional and cultural reasons. If these hypotheses are true, then the UK has a longer way to go to make a robust democracy that is transparent and responsive to the public.  Perhaps, we may say that the strength of FOIA is a test of a country’s democratic systems.

First, is it resisted because it is still connected or perceived as a way to resolve disputes with an organisation? As it is relatively new (7 years old), people have not distinguished it from the complaints processes.  For example, many people seem to be using the request to find out about the status of their claims or issues with an organisation. As such, this shows that the complaints process is not robust. Moreover, it suggests the underlying inability to communicate with the wider public.  As such, that may reflect more on the internal structure of an organisation, one that has poor internal communications, because it is a blame culture, and unable to pass such requests upwards for fear of blame. Thus, a good internal communications system may suggest better FOIA responsiveness as well as a better ability to communicate with the public.

Second, it may be resisted because the organisations still are adjusting their own internal processes to the legislation.  Even 7 years is a short time for change in an organisation. At each stage, the generations have to get used to what it means, what is expected and what the consequences that it creates.  For example, for those fearing blame, they will create perverse incentives when dealing with requests for transparency.  For others, compliance will simply be a risk assessment exercise in that they check the risk of non-compliance punishment against the upside of responding.  If the calculations do not favour disclosure, they do not give it much attention or many resources. In this sense, it may be another generation before organisations adjust their internal systems to meet the demands created by FOIA and a transparency culture.

Third, a key hypothesis to test is about customer service.  Are organisations (and countries) that are better at handling complaints ones that fewer FOIA requests? Are they also better at handling the requests?  If an organisation is responsive to the public, will the public use statutory instruments to get the organisation to respond? The need for a statutory instrument suggests that the democratic ethos is not infused within the organisations or the country.  At the same time, it may be a need for managing expectations is easier to do in a democracy so there is less suspicion from both sides and transparency does not lead to opaque results.

Fourth, another hypothesis suggests that a more mature democratic culture is inherently more transparent. By that, I mean governments trust their people to know information, they share more information, and are more responsive to their citizens.  In a country that has a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, there is a culture of information sharing.  As such, the need for FOIA is reduced.  By contrast, the countries where the government does not trust the people, does not share information, and is not responsive to them, one will find the FOIA is weaker and less accepted by the institutions, even if desired by the public.

In a robust democracy, one with a strong transparency culture, there is less of a need for FOIA.  At the same time, there is less of a resistance to FOIA. If organisations and people were infused with a democratic spirit, they would be less likely to resist FOIA.  This hypothesis suggests that those organisations and people that are opposed to Freedom of Information show, if only implicitly, the following issues.  They may distrust of the public.  Alternatively, they may resist public scrutiny or accountability to the public.  Finally, they may have a belief that government is the preserve of privilege and should not be responsive to the public.

In the end, the choice is with the public. They can show they want transparency, openness, and accountability by supporting a strengthened Freedom of Information Act.  They have the democratic choice. Now, is the time to exercise it.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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