Study Examines Success of FOI Request Platforms

20 November 2014

The first study of the growing number of nongovernmental platforms that facilitate freedom of information requests has found limited evidence of measurable impact but some encouraging signs.

The 27 sites studied, most of which have emerged in the last four years, have been technologically workable, weathered government resistance and face future sustainability challenges, according to the comprehensive study, which was conducted by a leading developer of such sites, the British group mySociety.

Using a software system known as Alavateli, mySociety created one of the earliest and best-known request sites, WhatDoTheyKnow.com. Alavateli was used to power 20 other sites, and a few other systems were developed independently. The study covers 27 sites in 25 countries, virtually all of the platforms.

The operators of the sites recorded increased use, dramatic in some cases, such as in in Ukraine and Czech Republic, but data is limited. “The total number of requests made through all other platforms is currently over 30,000,” according to the report, excluding WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

Assessing impact, however, remains problematical, the researchers said.

The main report is based on in-depth research by Savita Bailur and Tom Longley, and is accompanied by literature review of the “scarce” work on FOI and technology, plus a synthesis piece outlining “critical success factors and recommendations.”

The quote-filled report provides a detailed look at the origins of the sites and the challenges they faced. For example, “In some countries, implementers could not rely on an authority having the technical capacity to receive and send email (Guatemala, Macedonia, South Africa, Liberia). “

“We now hope to build on this research to better understand how to maximise the use and effectiveness of our platforms around the world in empowering citizens to engage with governments and decision-makers,” said mySociety’s Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul.

Measuring Impact Difficult

Measurable impact, the report summarizes,“is as yet hard to ascertain, simply because it is not the aim of many of the implementers.” They continued:

Instead, the focus is on promotion and awareness-raising – and implementers are even happy with a lack of response because it can be equally useful. That said, implementers express a palpable sense of empowerment to the citizen, and some kind of shift in control in the FOI process itself.

Site operators aim to increase awareness and drive the use of FOI by reducing the complexity of making request, according to the study. “Bringing the process into the open, online and collecting data from the process offers the opportunity to independently monitor FOI at scale.”

Government Antagonism

Implementers “face a mix of indifference, evasiveness and shortfalls in capacity from government,” according to the report.

Governments have challenged the legitimacy of the platforms as a channel to make FOI requests, questioned the legitimacy of requesters, used competing legal regimes to deny requests, used fees to deter requests, and other things.

The report summarized:

Sustained antagonism to FOI platforms is as rare as sustained and proactive help from government in getting acceptance for an FOI platform. Implementers face a mix of indifference, evasiveness and shortfalls in capacity from government. Even where conditions are favourable for an FOI platform, such as where there is a high level of basic digital coverage in government, implementers will always have to fight for the platform’s use to be normalised by officials. Even where it is normalised, and requests are commonly responded to, implementers and people using the platform can expect to face shortfalls in official capacity in using digital systems and a range of evasive behaviour. However, there is always internal variability in governmental response to FOI, and to interaction with FOI platforms. Implementers can capitalise on this, but there doesn’t appear to be a single path to success.

Most of the FOI platforms were “self-started without funding or with the support of small grants from private foundations,” have required more effort than expected and are financially “shaky,” the report says. “Attempts to diversify income sources using crowd-funding and donations, while innovative, do not look likely to replace these. “ according to the report, which says “many of the sites and their donors have not thought through long term sustainability.”

LIttle Data on Users

Regarding users, the report found:

There is very little concrete information about the users of FOI platforms. Implementers generally do not collect demographic information about their users. Where the platform is not specifically aimed at journalists, implementers have the impression that “active citizens” are their primary user base. The information most commonly requested by users of FOI platforms is financial, relating to government salaries and public expenditure. Most implementers see a need for general awareness raising and targeting specific potential users, but few feel they have the resource to do so at any scale. The use of an FOI platform seems tied to general awareness of FOI.

Journalists rarely use independent FOI platforms, and there was “mixed evidence” of their use by civil society organizations.

Finances have limited promotional activities, according to the report.

Overall Conclusions Reached

The researchers draw a number of conclusions (abbreviated here):

  • The UK platform, WhatDoTheyKnow, is an outlier in terms of success.
  • FOI platforms are still young but have real potential to be used extensively.
  • The technology is not usually the challenge.
  • Data about requests, and the database of prior requests made through the platform are the features implementers believe to be most critical, but their potential is largely untapped and little impact has yet been evidenced.
  • Publishing and archiving define the most distinctive aspect of FOI platforms like Alaveteli, which is the shift in control over the existence and authenticity of the FOI dialogue to the platform implementer.
  • All implementers have faced challenges in getting government acceptance.
  • The establishment of a FOI platform like Alaveteli is a radical act which relies on a commitment to a very specific form of communication between public bodies and citizens.
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