UK FOIA Effective, According to Report by World Bank

29 March 2013

The United Kingdom’s freedom of information act “is relatively effective and firmly entrenched,” according to an evaluation prepared for the World Bank.

The 36-page report prepared by consultant Tom McClean is one of eight case studies prepared as part of a World Bank project on the implementation of right to information laws. (See previous report.)

The UK FOIA law, implemented in 2005, “has achieved modest success in its primary aim of improving transparency,” concludes the report.

“Requesters have been able to obtain information that the government would have preferred not to disclose (such as documents relating to policy decisions) or that it actively sought to withhold (such as parliamentary expenses),” the report summarizes. It includes detail on such successes.

The report notes that the law itself “is not perfect” but “compares favorably against similar laws in other countries.” The UK regime has an information commissioner “with strong formal powers.” In the early years, there was an appeals backlog.

“In general, the prevalence of the rule of law and the high infrastructural capacity of the British state have allowed authorities to implement the FOIA using existing resources, and the existence of a strong and varied domestic constituency has been an essential contributor to the development, preparation, and implementation of the law,” according to the report. It credits use of the law for more proactive publication of information.

Impact Uneven

Nevertheless, the impact of the FOIA “has been uneven,” the report says. “For example, information about how much money the government spends is much easier to obtain than information about policy discussions; this variability of impact suggests that the underlying structure of power in the United Kingdom has influenced the FOIA rather than the FOIA radically transforming it.”

The origins of the law suggest “a cautious optimism about the prospects for transparency over the long term” according to the report, but this “cannot be taken for granted in the short term; the principle of ATI will likely remain contested for the foreseeable future.”

McClean, who studied at the London School of Economics,  is now Manager, Evaluation and Review, Performance and Management Branch, in the New South Wales (Australia) Department of Premier and Cabinet.

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