Friday, 7 June 2013

Unintended consequences of government transparency - freedom of information and open data under scrutiny

 
Institute’s Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen writes about government transparency, open data and freedom of information

Finland has one of the oldest freedom of information (FOI) laws in the world and - like its Nordic counterparts - its government is frequently considered one of the best-functioning and less-corrupted. The spirit of Chydenius and Forskål has encouraged Finland to showcase itself as a frontrunner of government transparency and good governance. Since its inclusion to the European Union in 1995, the Nordic state has argued for greater transparency within the supranational body, and in 2011 the newly elected Finnish government made open data one of its principle objectives in its government programme. Earlier this year, Finland joined Open Government Partnership, a new intergovernmental project for more transparent and accountable societies.

This was the setup for an all-afternoon discussion event held at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi on 30 May. The event was organised by the Finnish Institute, Embassy of Finland, Center for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck University and the University of Helsinki.

The first part of the event comprised of a lecture by Dr Tero Erkkilä from the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki and a commentary from Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä has recently published a book “Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences” where he forms an argument on how the conceptual shift from publicity to openness and transparency has in fact lead to several paradoxes in terms of democratic accountability and accessibility of public sector information.

The second part consisted of a panel with Christopher Cook (Financial Times), Paul Gibbons (SOAS) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Local Government Association) sharing their views and answering questions on the topics of the event.

One of the outlining themes of Dr Erkkilä’s lecture was the gradual shift in discourse from publicity towards market-oriented transparency. In the 1970s freedom of information was perceived mostly in democratic terms, as a right to access governmental documents, whereas during the 1990s the government started to realise the market potential of public sector information and the efficiency-driven term transparency began to emerge.

This conceptual shift together with Finns’ high trust towards their government has lead to a one example of unintended consequences, that being the economic exploitation of information such as census data. When government started to see public sector information as an economic commodity and started to attach a price tag to data, citizens’ access to this information arguably became more restricted.

The consensus-driven political culture has arguably lead to another unintended consequence, that being the “grey area” of openness, where the relevant information is being circulated among the decision making elite, but where the information will not necessarily reach the general public.

Dr Worthy responded to the lecture by contrasting the long tradition of FOI in Finland with the secretive administrative culture of the UK. However, certain similar trends seem to emerge in both countries due to the digitisation of information and the evolving efficiency-driven discussion around the role of public sector and provision of public services.

The panel further strengthened the observation of increasingly efficiency-oriented transparency discourse. Dr Gesche Schmid pointed out that especially in the UK the recent open data agenda has foremost focused on saving public resources. Open data agenda started as a technology-driven initiative but later on has transformed into primarily a way to save public resources.

Another interesting argument concerned the usability of data. According to Christopher Cook, comment editor of Financial Times, much of the data that is released as open data is almost unusable for the journalists since the data is not designed for using. Instead, there are datasets that are released under license and that are designed for journalists’ purposes. National Pupil Database is a good example of a dataset that is restricted from the public use, but selected individuals have access to it under a strict license.

Paul Gibbons, the creator of FOIman blog, pointed out the increasing division between FOI and open data. It is argued that the goals of the open data agenda have less and less resemblance with the initial democratic goals of FOI. Moreover, some of the most senior figures in the British public policy have recently argued in favour of proactive release of open data to replace the reactive FOI. Prime Minister David Cameron has even argued that FOI is merely “furring up the arteries of government”.

Gibbons further highlighted the importance of records management. In fact, one unintended consequence of open data might be the undermining of records management profession. In order to ensure the good quality of data and to protect privacy, it is crucial to involve records management into open data processes, because in many places records management professionals possess the required legal knowledge and have enabled the everyday mechanics of good governance.

Of course, FOI is not the only tool for ensuring democratic accountability, but without it it is hard to contemplate any serious progression. Moreover, the question of transparency is not a zero-sum game: open data does not automatically undermine FOI, far from it. In fact, open data can be used in various innovative ways to improve the state of FOI. As Ben Worthy mentioned in his comment, interesting things will presumably happen where FOI, open data and citizen engagement interact and this is what we should further support.

10 comments:

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