FOI Notes: Open Data, World Bank, FOI Research, Mexico, US, India, Construction Transparency

12 March 2015

United States: The FOIA Project is conducting a poll on the “worst FOIA failure,” with six candidates.

Open Data/FOI: Reflections by Lauranellen McCann urges attention to the civic role of technology, not just the proliferation of tools. Looking back at a talk she gave several years again McCann also comments:

But I was wrong to suggest that it’s open data alone that carries this power. I missed the chance, beyond the throwaway reference I made, to underscore that the reason that open data’s transformative power is so strong is not because it’s open data but because open data is the inheritance of a long-standing (and ongoing!) struggle for public records access in the United States. Its proliferation, its success, is not just the hard work of today’s civic hackers, but also of the information freedom fighters who came before us—the activists, journalists, government officials, lawyers, and so on who have deliberated and negotiated and fought our right to information over lifetimes.

World Bank: “Freedom of Information: the World Bank lags behind many member states,” writes journalist Douglas Gillison on the 100 Reporters website.

FOI Research: Daniel Berliner has published “The Political Origins of Transparency” in The Journal of Politics.

Abstract: Transparency has been hailed as the key to better governance, yet political actors have many reasons to resist transparency. This paper studies one prominent transparency policy, Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, which have been passed by over eighty countries. By institutionalizing transparency, FOI laws increase the costs for political actors to use public office – and public information – for private gain. Why have so many states passed FOI laws despite this? I argue that, in competitive political environments, FOI laws can create benefits for political actors as well as costs. Uncertainty over future control creates incentives for incumbents to pass FOI laws in order to ensure their own future access to government information, and to credibly commit to future transparency. Event history model results show that FOI law passage is more likely when opposition parties pose more credible challenges to incumbents, and when recent turnover in executive office has been frequent.

Mexico:Competing for Transparency: Political Competition and Institutional Reform in Mexican States,” by Daniel Berliner and Aaron Erlich, appears in the American Political Science Review.

Abstract: Why do political actors undertake reforms that constrain their own discretion? We argue that uncertainty generated by political competition is a major driver of such reforms, and test this argument using subnational data on Mexican states’ adoption of state-level access to information (ATI) laws. Examining data from 31 Mexican states plus the Federal District, we find that more politically competitive states passed ATI laws more rapidly, even taking into account the party in power, levels of corruption, civil society, and other factors. The fine-grained nature of our data, reflecting the staggered timing of elections, inauguration dates, and dates of passage, allows us to distinguish between different theoretical mechanisms. We find the greatest evidence in favor of an insurance mechanism, by which incumbent parties who face uncertainty over future political control seek to ensure access to government information, and means of monitoring incumbents, in the future in case they lose power.

Construction Transparency: The latest newsletter from the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative.

India: The Indian Express reports: “Nine months after the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh state was bifurcated and two new governments have taken over, a state of apathy seems to have cropped in as far as the implementation of Right to Information act is concerned. While the rate of disposal of RTI second appeals and complaints is at a staggering low, it is shocking to know that almost 90 per cent of the departments, HODs and the districts of both states have failed to disclose information online as per under Section 4(1)(b).”

United States: Two state trial level courts — one in New Jersey and one in New York — have allowed state law enforcement agencies to neither confirm nor deny the existence of records in response to requests under local sunshine laws, writes Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

United States: The Obama administration issues a presidential memorandum on drones & privacy directed the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to initiate a multi-stakeholder process to develop a framework for privacy, accountability, and transparency for private and commercial (not law enforcement/intelligence) drone use. As part of that process, the NTIA issues a request for comment, enumerating 16 different questions that it’s seeking input on.

United States: A panel of experts assembled to offer advice on transparency issues is not subject to the state of Tennessee’s open meetings law, says opinion of Ann Butterworth, who heads the Comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel, the news media reports.

United States: Commentary by Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, on Mississippi state legislation to apply the state FOI law to one public hospital while exempting all others.

United States: A pending bill in New Hampshire being fought by pro-transparency groups would “charge anyone making a right-to-know request an upfront fee – in theory covering the cost of retrieving and preparing the records – before they are turned over,” according to a Union Leader article.

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