Level of FOI Requests Varies With Awareness of Laws

24 October 2012

Variation in the per capita usage of freedom of information laws may depend on public awareness of the laws, according to two Swiss researchers.

The research was done primarily on the situations in Switzerland and Germany, where usage is lower than in other countries. Or at least it was at the time of the study, according to Sarah Holsen, who did the study with Martial Pasquier.  Both are with the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration, Lausanne.

Usage in both countries has picked up recently, Holsen said in an email to FreedomInfo.org. “I’d like to point out that the number of FOI requests in both Germany and Switzerland doubled from 2010 to 2011 (after this was written). It’s not entirely clear why but a web site through which people can send requests has been set up in Switzerland.”

Their research drew on 28 interviews with experts on the Swiss Law on Transparency (LTrans) and German FOI Law (IFG). The authors offer three primary explanations for the low use of the laws, according to the abstract:

 The first is that few people are aware of the law in either country as a consequence of little promotion of the laws.

 The second is that people might have more interest in information held at the state or local level than at the federal level.

The third is that other avenues to information in Switzerland reduce interest in using the LTrans and a culture of ‘‘amtsgeheimnis’’, or official secrecy, in Germany inhibits the administration from willingly disclosing information.

By contrast, they describe the rising use of the FOI law in the United Kingdom as a result of high awareness of the law.

Request Rates Vary

The authors point to substantially varied rates of requests:

Some countries have a high number of requests, such as Mexico, where 1.1 requests per 1,000 people weremade in 2010 (Federal Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection, 2010); Canada, where 1.05 requests per 1,000 were ?led in 2009-10 (Governmen of Canada, 2010); and the UK, where the central government received 0.72 requests per 1,000 people in 2010 (Government of UK, 2011). By contrast, in 2010 the Swiss federal government received 0.03 requests and the German government 0.02 per 1,000 people. Furthermore, whereas the number of requests has increased over time in Mexico, Canada and the UK, it has remained static in Germany and Switzerland.

The researchers reported:

Nearly all of the experts we interviewed in both countries concurred that one of the primary reasons for few requests was a lack of awareness by the public.

There are two likely reasons for this:

1) there is no requirement in either law to promote the policy;

 2) in Switzerland, there was no campaign for the law by interest groups or the media, nor have these actors made any e?orts to raise awareness since its passage. In Germany interest groups did push for the law but did not necessarily receive a lot of media attention for their e?orts; nor has there been much mention of the law in news articles since the law came into force.

As for low media use of the laws, the authors said German journalists “have had access to information since the 1960s through the ‘Landespressegesetz’, or state press laws, while in Switzerland reporters have well-established informal avenues for receiving information from the government and administration.”

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