Currently up to 100 countries worldwide have Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, and over 30 are using FOI request web-sites. However, there has been little research on effectiveness of these web-sites. Aiming to fill this gap in July-September 2014 a British organization mySociety has conducted comprehensive research on impact of Freedom of Information tools worldwide. The research by mySociety combines literature review on FOI in general and online FOI in particular, practitioner study based on findings from 27 FOI platforms from Europe, South Africa, US, UK, Canada etc based on interviews with FOI platform implementers and critical success factors. Among other FOI platforms, the study also covers Georgian experience, namely Public Information Database OpenData.ge, created by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI) with financial support from Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF) in 2010.
MySociety itself has created open source software Alaveteli and UK WhatDoTheyKnow.com, one of the first FOI web-sites. While most countries having FOI platforms use Alaveteli, the research also covers non-Alaveteli platforms, and particularly, Georgian OpenData.ge. Namely, Georgian OpenData.ge has been mentioned in the report as one of the successfully developing FOI platforms which is not based on Alaveteli software.
The study has revealed a number of interesting insights. While establishment of FOI platforms dates back to 2007, most were developed quite recently, between 2011 and 2013. In this light, as Georgian OpenData.ge has been first launched in 2010, it is one of the oldest FOI platforms available. Data of requests was only available for 17 platforms out of total 27. While the British WhatDoTheyKnow.com was an outlier in terms of number of requests (more than 220.000 by September 2014) the total number of requests made through other platforms is more than 30.000. Among these platforms the ones in Ukraine and Czech Republic have seen fastest growth between March and September, 2014.
The study focuses on a number of key topics such as: role of technology, relationship with governments, sustainability, users, partnership with journalists and CSOs, promotion, risks and impact.
As the study shows, technology is not a major challenge for FOI platforms. Half of the platforms have been created and supported by people with technical background such as software engineering and web development. FOI implementers worldwide believe that technology helps in numerous ways such as increasing awareness, simplifying access to government, monitoring FOI compliance and serving more people. Such platforms make request process a lot easier for users. For many implementers, FOI performance monitoring is the most significant advantage. While in some cases the FOI platforms are the only source of information for FOI performance, for some countries platforms are an alternative tool for watchdog activities.
In case of relationship with governments, while the study found that political opposition to FOI platforms is rare, there are still numerous ways in which officials challenge FOI platforms. These are undermining legitimacy of requests made via FOI platform, requiring personal identification for making a request, referring to copyright, privacy or defamation laws in order to deny requests or limit public sharing of documents. Besides, interestingly, study has found that in some countries, like Georgia, Bosnia, Chile and Italy, FOI compliance may depend on the power of requester, where CSOs may be in a more advantageous position than ordinary citizens.
The study has found that worldwide financial sustainability of FOI platforms depends on donor funding. Almost all platforms are funded by donors, mostly by Open Society Foundations, or by individuals, and most have not thought of long term sustainability. However, some FOI platforms have found alternative ways to finance themselves: e.g. MuckRock in the US charges users for making requests, crowd-funding worked effectively in Spain. While in countries like Georgia and Ukraine donations are not established as usual practice, other countries like Spain, Czech Republic and Hungary are successfully using donation for support. Besides, volunteer and in kind contribution is used in various countries (the UK, the US, Australia). Despite such attempts to diversify income, the study concludes that direct grant funding will be difficult to replace, which highlights challenge of sustainability for FOI platforms.
According to the study many FOI platforms do not collect detailed information on their users due to various reasons such as lack of time, resources, respect for privacy, and being concentrated on government responsiveness and accountability. Most common users of FOI platforms worldwide are journalists, CSOs and “active citizens” in general, while there is very little use by private sector. There are mostly young users; however, generally awareness of FOI remains serious challenge in most countries.
Based on literature review the authors of the study had expected that journalists would be main users of FOI platforms. As it turned out, six out of 27 platforms are managed by journalistic organizations (Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, two platforms in the US, Ukraine). While implementers of FOI platforms see journalists as their key users, this is not always the case. Some platforms have their own journalists (Hungary and Spain). When used by journalists, the key benefits of FOI platforms mainly are tracking requests and publishing original documents. As for lack of use by journalists, the main reasons are time, costs and competitiveness. In case of such websites (Alaveteli based) that show all requests and received public information online journalists do not use them in order to stay competitive and also, they can still get the information informally. In some cases, e.g. in Italy FOI platforms are even seen by journalists as competitors. Another reason is that journalists have internal contact people in the government by means of which they receive needed information.
In the light of these challenges OpenData.ge has been mentioned in the study as a successful case when information is requested for journalists and not made public until the journalistic piece was done. However, this is seen by Alaveteli creators as not desirable, due to more requests kept private, difficulty to define “journalists” and still long time needed for received information. According to the study emerging trend in Georgia, Macedonia and Ukraine is that FOI platforms do not only offer journalists to make a request, but to browse database of past requests, find trends and raise awareness.
While there is mixed evidence on whether CSOs are using FOI in general and FOI platforms in particular, many implementers see advantages of technologies for CSOs. Considering this Georgian OpenData.ge has been viewed as one of the good examples of CSO partnership, when three other CSOs joined the platform three years after its launch. According to the study advantages of such collaboration could be firstly broader coverage of FOI compliance, as well as increasing collective reputation, although each organization has independent process for requests and appeals.
Some of the challenges in more use of FOI platforms by CSOs are that some CSOs have alternative means of receiving information via direct access, e.g. personal e-mails, as in Tunisia, Liberia and Romania. Competitiveness and consecutive secrecy among CSOs has also been reported, as similar to journalists, for instance in the US. Besides, as in case with journalists, CSOs face such challenges as lack of time, unwillingness to strain relations with governments and also, different agendas.
The study has found that while promotion is seen by implementers as essential, it also the most difficult part. While there are a variety of ways to promote FOI platforms, such as voluntary help and organizing workshops, Georgian OpenData.ge is mentioned as a case when the authors of the platform themselves prepare analytical material based on received public information, thus preparing ready stories for media coverage and making the data easily accessible for more people.
While in India FOI activists are threatened or killed, in most countries covered by the study, (e.g. Guatemala, Uruguay, Uganda, Macedonia, Tunisia, and Czech Republic) serious threats are not the case. Importantly, the study shows that inexistence of anonymous requesting may increase risk perception due to lack of trust of the government, as in case of Italy, Chile and Bosnia. With this in mind identification remains a serious challenge, and as it is believed in New Zealand, can be seen as discouraging factor for users.
However, there have been threats followed by legal action in Ukraine, USA and Hungary. The CSO running FOI platform in Hungary is included in the “list of problematic NGOs” published by the government. In their case the police took and damaged encrypted hard-drive of the Editor-in-Chief. The US FOI platform implementer was threatened by jail. Even in case of the UK there are some cases with documents that are not published on the website due to risks for legal action.
The study shows the trend that some newly established platforms are more optimistic, while the better-established ones see real risks behind their actions. Still, the study shows that the greatest existing risk is lack of interest from the government, the public as well as partners. However, the risks for running FOI platforms is mostly based on personal perceptions rather than factual evidence, and more research is needed for understanding real threats for users and implementers. The study stresses the need for legal procedures to protect the requesters.
The aims of FOI platforms worldwide are various. While the initial goal for many platforms, like in Bosnia, Hungary, Spain, Italy and Uruguay, was to create database of public information and driving attention to FOI issues, the final goal was advocacy, change of attitude from the government, pressure for more openness of government, demand for new FOI legislation as in Spain or critical attitude towards effectiveness of existing legislation as in Australia, Italy and Uruguay. Thus, most countries share the same goal to create database and advocate for government transparency. Besides, the common aim shared by most FOI platforms is also to understand bureaucracy of the country better and achieve more openness.
Some of the success factors identified throughout the research process is to be aware of the final aim, to invest in promotion, launch FOI platforms with an event, stay in touch with broader FOI community, partner with other CSOs and the government, think about sustainability and make a commitment to workload.
The study concludes that on the one hand there is need for tighter links between various FOI platforms and on the other more has to be done in order to study the users of FOI platforms. Besides, the study recommends finding the ways of future sustainability either through extending funding by donor organizations, or searching for innovative and efficient sources of funding.
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