Accountability or Participation? Disentangling the Rationales for FOI Access to Deliberative Material
IRevue Internationale des Gouvernements Ouverts 2015 Pages 327-344 Judith Bannister
19 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2016
Date Written: December 1, 2015
This conference described our age as “the open government era”. The optimism apparent in this title is in many ways entirely justifiable. While open government has evolved slowly, and faced many challenges, half a century of statutory rights to access government documents has converged with information technology revolution to produce some remarkable results. When the United States Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966, the idea of free online datasets, open to anyone anywhere in the world with access to a hand-held device, would have been unimaginable. When the Australian Federal freedom of information legislation was passed in 1982, leaks of government information like those now being disclosed over the Internet through Wikileaks were being printed in newspapers and monographs. The Hon. Michael Kirby, former Justice of the Australian High Court, once described the introduction of freedom of information (FOI) as a radical reform, given the long history of official secrecy, and “the attitudinal shift that FOI legislation demanded of ministers, departments, agencies and the public service [as] nothing short of revolutionary”. Governments now talk routinely about transparency and open government as mainstays of democracy, and government information is recognised as a national resource. However, there are ongoing tensions about how open government is to be administered that remain unresolved. Some tensions concern competing public interests that will be with us forever: government accountability versus national security, and openness versus the protection of private interests. Other tensions can be traced to fundamental differences in the way that open government is understood. How much disclosure was really intended when the FOI regimes were introduced? Differences in expectations often remain unstated, indeed unrecognised, when terms such as “open government” and “transparency” are invoked with reverence as democratic tenets, without any clear analysis of what openness is intended to achieve.
Keywords: FOI, Freedom of Information Act, transparency, disclosure
JEL Classification: K19
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation