50 ONG americane chiedono a Obama di riformare il FOIA

American redaction - Photo by Truthout.org (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
American redaction – Photo by Truthout.org (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Lo scorso 23 ottobre 50 organizzazioni e ONG americane hanno scritto una lettera al presidente Obama chiedendogli di sostenere pubblicamente il processo di riforma del Freedom of Information Act (in vigore dal 1967).

La lettera, firmata tra gli altri da American Civil Liberties Union, Sunlight Foundation ed Electronic Frontier Foundation, ricorda che la legge è uno degli strumenti più efficaci al servizio dei cittadini ma che la sua implementazione ha diversi problemi da risolvere.

Nel testo sono sottolineate sei priorità, relative al margine di interpretazione e alle eccezioni – margine che, si legge, spesso viene interpretato in modo restrittivo rispetto ai documenti, specie quelli interni. Viene inoltre richiesto un ampliamento del ruolo dell’Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) e la possibilità di accedere a documenti creati 25 anni fa, o prima, condizione che spesso viene fatta rientrare in una delle eccezioni. Nella lettera si spiega:

“il FOIA non dovrebbe essere usato per impedire l’accesso pubblico alla storia della nostra nazione, laddove il passaggio del tempo ha significativamente eroso, ove non completamente eliminato, ogni possibile interesse di segretezza da parte del governo”

Il contributo legislativo del Presidente in questo senso è fondamentale, scrivono i firmatari, a maggior ragione per dar seguito al proposito di diventare “l’amministrazione più trasparente della storia”, cosa che Obama promise nel suo primo giorno da Presidente.

[GUEST] What Happens When You Publish Salaries?

Secondo appuntamento con Ben Worthy per parlare dell’impatto degli open data.
Il post originale è stato pubblicato qui lo scorso luglio. 

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The publication of what public officials earn was one of the big headline grabbing policies of the government’s Transparency Agenda back in 2010. From MPs’ expenses to the pay levels of senior Civil Servants, publication of who gets what is always tricky and sensitive- and often leads to ‘rich lists’ like this one. Now it may be the turn of high-earning academics to disclose what they earn, given this recent ICO decision in relation to Kings College London-see the background here.

The idea is that publication of salaries leads to the reigning in of large salaries, as public bodies cut back due to embarrassment or because others take action to reduce them. This also plays into a wider story, that looks set to be part of the General Election battle, about income inequality (you can see some interesting ONS statistics on earnings here).

As ever, the US is far ahead in the publishing of salaries. The Missouri Accountability Portal allows you to see all employees’ salaries at the push of a button. However, a study of public sector disclosure legislation in Canada (looking at academics) found no decrease insalaries after publication (and pointed out, bless them, that academics were paid less than they should be). Ontario’s so-called ‘Sunshine List’ of high earners made no difference either.

More interestingly, some research reveals publication of salaries actually has the opposite effect to that intended and is rather wonderfully counter-productive. This study of German CEOs found that when their salaries were published, other senior salaries went up as colleagues became aware of how much their colleagues earned and then pressured or negotiated for a pay rise. Rather than leading to cutting back or embarrassment, it led others to say ‘why aren’t I getting that much’?

The constant focus on ‘pay’ misses out a potentially more important discussion about performance – this study indicates some of the top US CEOs were getting better rewarded for poorer performances. Perhaps we could try and see if the Civil Servants paid more than the Prime Minister are doing a better job than he is? This points to a further difficulty that those in business do not have-given that neither MPs nor the Prime Minister have a formal job description, what constitutes a ‘good’ performance for a politician?

 

Diritto Di Sapere aderisce alla CILD

cild-italia_logoNel nostro lavoro quotidiano ci occupiamo di promuovere e difendere un diritto fondamentale, quello di accesso all’informazione.

Ma più andiamo avanti, più abbiamo anche la consapevolezza che i diritti e le libertà civili sono fra loro interdipendenti e indivisibili.

Per questo motivo Diritto Di Sapere ha deciso di aderire alla Coalizione Italiana Libertà e Diritti Civili (CILD), che raccoglie un gruppo di organizzazioni non governative e di associazioni ha deciso di mettersi in rete e di costruire un nuovo soggetto nazionale.

La coalizione verrà presentata nel corso della prima conferenza nazionale, il prossimo 17 ottobre a Roma.

Oltre all’accesso all’informazione, la CILD promuoverà anche la lotta al razzismo e ogni forma di discriminazione, i diritti delle persone immigrate e di etnia rom e sinti, il contrasto a un sistema penale e penitenziario privo di garanzie e irrispettoso della dignità umana, la lotta alla corruzione e le battaglie per la trasparenza nella pubblica amministrazione, i diritti delle persone della comunità Lgbt, la questione droghe, i diritti dei minori, la violenza contro le donne.

Nella presentazione della CILD, il presidente Patrizio Gonnella, scrive:

Le libertà e i diritti civili sono fra loro intimamente connessi. Essi sono interdipendenti e indivisibili. Attraverso la loro promozione e protezione è possibile un cambio di paradigma, ovvero è possibile contribuire alla costruzione di una società più coesa, solidale ed equa.

Anche Diritto Di Sapere farà la sua parte.

FOI and Open Data: Where Are We Now?

Con questo post iniziamo una collaborazione con Ben Worthy, ricercatore inglese che insegna al Birkbeck College (University of London) e che si occupa di trasparenza, accesso all’informazione e impatto degli open data. Il post è stato originariamente pubblicato sul blog di Ben, che ringraziamo.

 

It is almost a decade since the Freedom of Information Act 2005 came into force and five years since the Coalition launched its ‘Transparency Agenda’, aimed at increasing online transparency. What has been the impact of the two reforms so far?

The Impact of FOI and Open Data

Freedom of Information 2005-2014

The key driver of any FOI regime is requests. The number of FOI requests to UK central government have gone up around 6 % per year, from 38,000 in 2005 to 53,000 in 2013. Meanwhile, local government is the recipient of the vast majority of FOIs-numbers increased more than three fold in the first five years, accounting for between 70-80% of all requests. Users, as far as we know, are a mixed group of the public (the biggest user group) alongside journalists, businesses and NGOs.

So what impact has FOI had? It has undoubtedly made public bodies more transparent about all sorts of topics, from salaries to road maintenance. According to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, it has also ‘contributed to a culture of greater openness across public authorities … public officials not only to implement the Act but to work with the spirit of FOI to achieve greater openness’ (Justice 2012). The government agreed that the ‘Act has contributed to a culture of greater openness across public authorities’ (Justice 2012, 4).

Public bodies and figures are more accountable because of FOI. The Act often works with other mechanisms (such as the media, MPs or NGOs) as a tool to put together information for campaigns. Although high profile cases, such as MPs’ expenses, attract publicity, FOI is often used, especially at local level, as a ‘jigsaw’ tool to put together information rather than to obtain scandalous ‘smoking guns’.

Some of the more ambitious aims have not been met. This is not because the Act has failed but because the aims were far too high. FOI has not, by itself, improved the quality of decision-making, public understanding of decision-making or participation. Superficially FOI does not appear to have increased trust in government-the Justice Committee concluded FOI had ‘no generalisable impact’ on it. However, trust is a complex issue and Even the seemingly clear ‘drop’ in trust created by the MPs’ expenses scandal is not as simple as it seems: the disclosure that some MPs are corrupt came as confirmation not a revelation to many. On a positive note, despite the claims of many ex-senior politicians, the records are not disappearing: a ‘chilling effect’ can be seen in a few politically sensitive cases but is not happening systematically.

Open Data 2010-2014

 The Coalition’s Transparency Agenda is actually a series of different reforms, all using information technology to encourage openness. They include new data platforms, publication of frontline service and spending data and innovations such as online crime maps and crowd-sourced experiments.

The effects so far seem variable. High profile Open Data platforms like data.gov.uk have attracted users and innovators while the crime map, police.uk, crashed on the first day due to levels of use. Some other experiments have been less successful and the crowd-sourcing of policy had to be scaled back.

One flagship innovation in the UK has been to ask all local authorities to publish on a monthly basis their spending over £500 onlines-see my analysis here. There appears to be little use by the public yet, though some by journalists and businesses. There is no sign of the promised ‘army’ of citizen auditors using the data to hold authorities to account. Some are concerned, both in the UK and elsewhere, that publishing spending data encourages emphasis on ‘costs’ rather than impact. However, the local spending data has launched several interesting third party innovations, some of which have been created ‘upwards’ from the community and others between public bodies-see below.

Resistance?

For transparency to be successful senior politicians both within organisations and nationally need to push for it and support. One of the big concerns is that there will be hostility and resistance. The problem is that leaders quickly go off being transparent. Tony Blair, who passed the FOI Act, gave his verdict:

The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet (Blair 2010, 516-517).

David Cameron also spoke of how the Act can ‘occasionally fur up the arteries of government’ (BBC 7 Mar 2012). The danger is that such negativity may encourage poor behaviour and lead to a small ‘anti-FOI’ group at the very top of government. In several local authorities there is a similar rumble of discontent at the time and resources FOI uses and the damage ‘frivolous’ requests cause.

The dislike of FOI can also translate into action. In the UK the veto has now been usedseven times to prevent the release of information including for Cabinet discussions over the war in Iraq and correspondence between Prince Charles and the government. In 2006 an attempt was made by the Blair government to introduce fees for FOI, as happened in Ireland in 2005. This was closely followed by an attempt by a group of MPs to remove Parliament from the FOI Act.

Neither is Open Data fully supported. The government’s initial emphasis on the ‘democratic’ benefits of the reforms have been downplayed with a shift to the economic benefits. The Public Administration Committee claimed that some departments and Ministers are more interested than others. Across local government there has been varying degrees of enthusiasm for the Open Data and spending publication. Some local authorities have innovated, a few resisted while the majority seem to be going through the motions. Local councils are keen to be develop new tools for citizens but are concerned at the resource implications and is unclear on what the agenda is meant to do-see this LGA survey.

Where Next?

So what does the future hold? The first area is private providers. Section 5 of the Act can be used to extend the scope of the legislation and all the main parties are committed to extension to ‘private providers’ working on behalf of public authorities. FOI already allows access to some information held by private bodies relating to public work and most bodies are happy to provide it, albeit with some high profile exceptions. In 2007 Gordon Brown committed to extend the Act to all public work carried out by private bodies but eventually did not do so, concerned about potential costs to businesses. In 2010 the new Coalition government (again) committed to extend it but are yet to do so. The recent post-legislative scrutiny recommended that FOI be enforced by contracts rather than explicit extension of the Act. It could also be that we can start to find out more about what businesses do for public bodies via Open Data, as providers give more information through experiments like contracts finder.

Could there be other changes? Although most past attempts to reform the Act have failed, it is possible that future governments, sceptical of FOI, may try again whether directly, through changes to the law, or indirectly through ‘resource starvation’. The current government has expressed its concerns about what it calls ‘industrial’ users of the FOI Act. On the other hand, it is possible that parts of the Open Data agenda may turned from ‘codes’ into law. One concern of campaigners is that the government may ‘give’ Open Data with one hand and ‘take away’ information rights with the other.

Finally, are there areas where FOI and Open Data could meet? The FOI has already been amended to include datasets. Advocates and officials feelonline publication, FOI and new innovations could serve to mutually reinforce each other. This can already be seen with mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow that publishes FOI’s publically (and accounts for 10% of all FOIs) or Openly Local, an interactive merging of democratic and financial data. Other innovations could bring easy comparability such as Appgov (note-this site is currently in the development stages).

Conclusion

Ten years after FOI the UK has seen a huge advance in openness. The Act is working well. It is embedded within public bodies, from central government to Parish council, and is an accepted part of the political landscape. Open Data is more uneven but it is likely to take time as developers do new things with the data. The concern is that the ‘myths’ around being open obscure how it actually works. There are legitimate concerns about use but these are becoming confused with the claims of unhappy politicians-complaints from politicians may be a sign of transparency doing its job.

This piece was originally written for and published by PDP