Why do the citizens of some countries make far fewer requests under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws than others? In a fascinating new paper, Sarah Holsen and Martial Pasquier from the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP) set out to address this puzzle.
Because many FOI laws are similar, we might assume that public use would be similar. But in comparing FOI requests per capita across seven countries — Canada, Ireland, Mexico, India, the U.K., Switzerland, and Germany — they found that far fewer requests are made in Switzerland and Germany.
In the last decade, 54 countries passed FOI laws. The global tally now stands in excess of 80 countries. But, as Holsen and Pasquier remind us, getting FOI laws on the books is one thing, getting people to use them is quite another. Mexico had 1.1 requests per 1,000 people in 2010; Canada had 1.05 per 1,000 people; the U.K., 0.72. But the equivalent figures for Switzerland and Germany in the same year were pitiful by comparison: 0.03 and 0.02 requests per 1,000 people, respectively. Put differently, citizens in the U.K. made requests almost 25 times more often than citizens in Switzerland and about 35 times more often than citizens in Germany.
The authors find that Switzerland and Germany’s use of FOI laws has remained low and static, whereas Ireland, Mexico, and the U.K. all had relatively high use from the beginning, with usage rates generally increasing in recent years. Canada had a more gradual increase after a slow start, while India initially had low usage, but then had an accelerated uptick in its request rate.
Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much research into why usage rates vary, though some hypotheses have been offered. One theory offered is that people quite simply won’t make requests when they don’t know they have the right to: a likely situation if new FOI laws aren’t widely publicized.
Naturally, this raises the question of why, in some countries, once hard struggles to get FOI laws onto the books have been won, there is such inadequate publicity. Indeed, Holsen and Pasquier conclude that a major reason why Switzerland and Germany have so few requests is because in both cases the law contained no requirement to promote it and there was little media interest in doing so.
In Switzerland, neither interest groups nor the media campaigned for the law or promoted it after it came into effect. In Germany, interest groups pushed for the law to be passed, but got scant media coverage for their efforts, with the media’s lack of interest continuing once the law was implemented.
By contrast, the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office reports that in 2004, four years after the government passed its FOI law, 74% of the British population was aware of the law, rising to 85% in 2009. This can be attributed to the efforts of government, the media, and civil society. As legally mandated by law, the Information Commissioner publicized the law. The U.K.’s tabloid and broadsheet newspapers published over 5,500 FOI-related articles between 2005 and 2007. And interest groups and other civil society organizations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Campaign for Freedom of Information raised awareness.
The authors also speculate about other possible explanations for the German and Swiss reluctance to use FOI laws. In both countries, citizens may more interested in local- or state-level information than federal information. In Switzerland, other ways to access information may reduce interest in using the FOI law. And, according to the authors, a culture of official secrecy (amtsgeheimnis) in Germany “inhibits the administration from willingly disclosing information.”
Nevertheless, the striking fact that in both countries so little was done to publicize these laws yields a simple but underappreciated lesson: if we want higher usage of new FOI laws by the public, it’s probably a good idea to promote them aggressively before and after they come into force — and not just by governments and information commissioners, but also by the media and civil society groups. Robert Hazell and his colleagues from the Constitution Unit at University College, London put it bluntly: “promotional measures […] are aspects of FOI legislation often missed but as important as access rights.”
— Tom Hannan
— Image Credit: Flickr | Cobalt123