CIMA Report Makes Suggestions for Improving FOI Implementation

11 September 2013

Many freedom of information are “exemplary on paper” but “poorly implemented,” according to a new report that offers a variety of recommendations aimed at “breathing life” into FOI laws.

Authors Craig L. LaMay, Robert J. Freeman and Richard N. Winfield aim to provide a list of “practical” suggestions in the 55-page report was sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance at the U.S government-backed National endowment for Democracy.

While many of the recommendations are familiar – better training, more public awareness efforts, increased proactive disclosure – the report offers one less common suggestion – to not  “compel the government to search through the haystack for the needle, even if it is known that the needle is there, somewhere.”

The report makes 10 overall recommendations:

–       Officials “must be properly organized, trained, funded, and protected.”

–       “Because government touches everything, an FOI law should touch everything.”

–       “It should be recognized that an FOI law is most important to average citizens at the local government level.”

–       FOI exceptions “should be based on the likelihood of harm that could arise as a result of disclosure.”

–       “The law should not require that government officers, employees, or agencies go to unreasonable lengths to accommodate applicants.”

–       It must be recognized that public officials and government employees are more accountable than the public generally and that they enjoy less privacy than others.”

–       “Harness the power of information technology,” especially to enhance proactive disclosure.

–       Improve records management.

–       “Ensure that the ombudsperson or compliance person or body is a true believer and a champion of FOI and empower that person or entity to act on behalf of the public.”

–       Conduct regular reviews of the operation of the law.

The report makes other recommendations, including 12 for governments — training, funding, oversight and others.

There are six recommendations for journalists and civil society:

–       “Train and train again.”

–       “Encourage successful use of the law by example.”

–       “Emphasize the social and economic benefits of FOI laws.”

–       Monitor Implementation.

–       Inform the pubblic of its right to information.

–       “Provide practical; and legal; advice for using the FOI law.”

“Surprisingly but commonly, citizens, national and local public officials, and journalists are often unaware that such laws even exist, much less how they work,” according to the report, and the request levels are “far below what might be expected.” In addition, some governments “retain the habit of working in secrecy” and requests “are rejected on grounds that have no basis in law” with limited opportunity to contest denials.

Addressing proactive disclosure, the report says:

It should be required that governments post material on their websites when it is significant, clearly public, and frequently requested or used by the public. The government should also now promote “smart data,” also known as “open data,” platforms that enable users to merge and analyze machine-readable data. Government should also develop its electronic information systems in a manner in which it can segregate data items that are public from those that can justifiably be withheld. This promotes maximum access, consistent with the intent of the law, while concurrently protecting privacy or the disclosure of information that is clearly exempt.

An appendix includes interviews with stakeholders in six countries: Albania, Armenia, Indonesia, Jamaica, South Africa, and Ukraine.

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