Can social media reduce the cost of responding to foi requests?

Infographic on how Social Media are being used...

Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the recent written evidence to the Justice select committee reviewing FOIA in the UK, the “cost” of FOI has been discussed.  Often, the witnesses want to cut this cost by limiting the number of requests. I would argue that such evidence suggests the problem might be the other way.  What it may suggest is that organisations are not structured to respond to FOI requests. They may lack the culture of openness. Alternatively, their systems are not designed to be accessible for FOI purposes.  The deeper issue though, often unstated, is that the organisations are often opaque to themselves.

FOI requests can seem to be a burden because people inside the organisation do not have access to the information.  The internal communications may be weak. If they are weak, then it is hard to respond. Social media platforms can help improve communication.  For example, Yammer, or any social media platform, can help to create better internal communications.   For public sector organisations, does internal transparency leads to better external transparency, such as in the time taken to respond to FOIA requests?

Many public and private organisations use social media platforms (wikis or blogs) to improve internal communications.  More information can be shared and this creates trust.  The increased trust allows quicker responses to FOI requests.  What the public may not realize is that organisations lack internal transparency. In some cases, challenge is not tolerated.  Many organisations do not like bad news being circulated internally. The critical (negative) upwards communication is limited.  When FOI is seen as digging for “negative” or “critical” information, it becomes a “burden.”

Social media platforms inside an organisation can help to create the internal transparency.  . The problem though is not simply technology. An organisation may be transparent before it uses the technology. However, the technology can help to foster transparency. In local government, the drive to using social media internally has gained ground. Therefore, one should expect that with this technology available, it should be easier, and not harder, to respond to FOIA requests. Leaders need more than technology. They have to understand the culture change needed.  The senior managers, the people presenting their evidence, need to understand that their own behaviour is as much responsible for transparency as it is the technology.

The challenge for FOIA is that we do not yet have leaders, as well as subordinates, who have “grown up with” FOI so that they can live the culture.  Leaders need to have a style of leadership that allows them to search out the raw information within the organisation that may be unsettling because it contradicts the “the company line”.  How many leaders can continually search out the contrary opinion? How many can hear the bad news without dismissing it by the good news they hear?  Yet, good leaders thrive on this type of information and Yammer and other social media platforms, such as wikis, are a good way to break down information silos and share this information

For local and central government further burden is that FOI requests reflect the political context.  In the US system, political appointees can act as gatekeepers for FOIA requests.  In this role, they may limit or stop access to the information they control. In other cases, there may be information hoarders who refuse to share or seek to limit anyone’s access to “their” information.  An interesting MA thesis on the topic is   (Transparency in the Government Communication Process: the perspective of government communicators.  Jenille Fairbanks.)

Some UK authorities and organisations are using social media platforms. Social media helps internal transparency. The internal transparency can help it with external transparency. The higher the trust within an organisation, the greater will be its trust in the public.  The organisation can be comfortable being open with the public because it is comfortable being open with itself.  Where there is a weak internal culture of transparency and a low level of trust, then information will be hoarded. When this happens, FOI responses slow down and requests for information seem to be a burden.

Technology may yet do what the culture has not yet done: create transparency.  If local and central government use social media they may become more transparent. They can then cut the burden of FOI. What are needed are leaders who set the tone for the culture and the technology. They need to reinforce the trust and transparency culture as they embrace social media. Perhaps the “true” cost of FOIA in the UK is the cultural resistance and flawed communication structures.

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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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