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Freedom of Information (FOI): Whats it all about? Sarah Holsen and Ben Worthy Research Fellows, The Constitution Unit, UCL 22 October 2007.

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Presentation on theme: "Freedom of Information (FOI): Whats it all about? Sarah Holsen and Ben Worthy Research Fellows, The Constitution Unit, UCL 22 October 2007."— Presentation transcript:

1 Freedom of Information (FOI): Whats it all about? Sarah Holsen and Ben Worthy Research Fellows, The Constitution Unit, UCL 22 October 2007

2 2 Outline of presentation What is FOI? Where is FOI? Who uses FOI? When should you use FOI? Why should there be FOI? What is good about FOI? What can go wrong with FOI?

3 3 What is freedom of information? Legal definition: access by individuals as a presumptive right to information held by public authorities In plain language: right to ask for information from the government without having to give a reason Also known as: access to information, right of access, right to know

4 4 Where is FOI?

5 5 Albania Angola Antigua & Barbuda Argentina Armenia Australia Austria Azerbaijan Belgium Belize Bosnia and Herzegovina Bulgaria Canada Colombia Croatia Czech Republic Denmark Slovenia South Africa South Korea Spain Sweden Switzerland Tajikistan Thailand Trinidad & Tobago Turkey Uganda Ukraine United Kingdom United States Uzbekistan Zimbabwe Dominican Republic Ecuador Estonia Finland France Georgia Germany Greece Hungary Iceland India Ireland Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Kosovo Latvia Liechtenstein Lithuania Macedonia Mexico Moldova Montenegro Netherlands New Zealand Norway Pakistan Panama Peru Philippines Poland Portugal Romania Serbia Slovakia Where is FOI?

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8 8 Brief guide to the UKs Freedom of Information Act 2000 Passed by Parliament in November 2000; came fully into force on 1 January 2005 Applies to over 100,000 public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland Anyone may make a request in written form Authorities are obligated to respond within 20 working days Any of 23 exemptions can be applied Complaints process includes 3 stages: internal review, Information Commissioners Office, and Information Tribunal

9 9 Who uses FOI? Members of the public (private individuals) Journalists Businesses / companies Academics / students Lawyers Campaign groups / lobbyists Government staff / Members of Parliament

10 10 When should you use FOI? When you need information about: Government policies / procedures Historical documents Costs / expenses Issues of local importance UFO sightings

11 11 National UK medias use of FOIA in 2005 Content / nature of article % of articles Costs / Expenses27% Institutional rules, procedures and policies 27% Performance measures 13% Whimsical / Trivial 12% Historical12% Based on preliminary results of a study of national print medias use of FOI in 2005 in the UK by the Constitution Unit, 2006.

12 12 Stories that have appeared in UK news…

13 13 …or not appeared in the UK news

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15 15 What FOI helps reveal…

16 16 What FOI helps reveal…

17 17 Why should there be FOI? The eye of the public makes the statesman virtuous. The multitude of the audience multiplies for disintegrity the chances of detection. (Jeremy Bentham, 1785) Information is the currency of Democracy. (Thomas Jefferson) Open government is increasingly recognized as an essential ingredient for democratic governance. (OECD, November 2005)

18 18 Reasons for FOI laws (general) Anti-corruption Constitutional right Remedy past injustices through knowledge Overhaul of records management E-government

19 19 Reasons for FOI law (UK) Increase the transparency of public authorities Make government more accountable Improve the quality of government decision-making Improve government efficiency and service delivery Increase public understanding of government decision-making Make public participation in the political process more effective Increase public trust and confidence in government

20 20 Benefits of FOI for public authorities Based on data taken from the report Freedom of Information: One Year On, Information Commissioner s Office, January The report is the result of a survey of 500 public authorities in the UK in November 2005.

21 21 Benefits of FOI for requesters Large amounts of information released in UK (over 245,000 requests made since 01/01/05), much of it important and useful to the public Media find the FOI Act a useful tool for gaining access to information Generally perceived increase in transparency and accountability

22 22 Evidence of greater transparency in UK? In first 1.5 years of FOIA in the UK, the answer is yes, if only on a loosely substantiated basis FOIA is beginning to shine light on areas of public life which some would have preferred to keep in darkness – The Times (UK), 2005 ICO study in 2006 has found that: –72% of individuals have more confidence in public authorities because of FOI (compared to 55% in spring 2005) –74% feel the FOIA helps to promote accountability and transparency in public authorities (compared to 50% in 2005)

23 23 Difficulties encountered by public authorities Based on data taken from the report Freedom of Information: One Year On, Information Commissioner s Office, January The report is the result of a survey of 500 public authorities in the UK in November 2005.

24 24 Costs of implementation * Source: Freedom of Information Act 2000: The first six months – The experience of local authorities in England, The Constitution Unit, 30/09/05. ** Source: Presentation by Chief Inspector Paul Brooks of the Association of Chief Police Officers at FOI Live 2006, 25/05/06. *** Source: Freedom of Information – one year on (Written evidence), House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee, Average time and cost of FOI requests to local authorities: January – June 2005* The police sector estimates that they spent £7 million answering 21,525 FOI requests (£325 per request on average) in This is roughly equal to the annual salaries of 250 mid-level police officers.** BBC spent £867,000 preparing for implementation before 1 January 2005 and £500,000 on central FOI compliance costs in 2005*** Requests Average hours per request Average cost per request (£ 25 / hour) Total cost over six months County, unitary and metropolitan councils; London boroughs £355£55,025 District councils5312.4£310£16,430

25 25 Records management problems

26 26 Delays beyond 20-day statutory time limit and backlog of Information Commissioner cases Overly broad interpretation of exemptions and inability to balance the public interest Poor quality of responses and decision notices Concern of mandatory fees being implemented or current regime altered to increase fees Lack of transparency in response and coordination process Problems encountered: the FOI requesters point of view Source: Freedom of Information – one year on (Written and oral evidence), House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee, 2006.

27 27 Evidence of greater transparency in UK? FOIA has begun to open doors – but is yet to be fully tested against those the government is determined to keep locked – Maurice Frankel (The Independent, 31 December 2005) Threats to power of Act: –Changes proposed: Fees regulations Maclean Bill –Delays: Requests Internal reviews ICO decisions

28 28 George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have created the most secretive presidency of my lifetime. Their secrecy is far worse than during Watergate... Their secrecy is extreme -- not merely unjustified but obsessive. John Dean, April 2004 "Even before the 'new kind of war' in the Persian Gulf, secrecy in the George W. Bush administration was the greatest in any presidency in my lifetime. It has grown more since." Haynes Johnson, October 2005

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31 31 Sources for future reference

32 32 THANK YOU For further information: or visit our website at


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