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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Comparative research relevant to Australian FOI management

The ARMA (American Records Management Association) International Educational Foundation has funded a research project on FOI History, Experience and Records and Information Management Implications in the US, Canada and United Kingdom.

The project was undertaken by the Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science/School of Public Policy, University College London.

The report has just been published. FOI - USA, Canada and the United Kingdom

It's an outstanding piece of research and analysis and highlights the practical aspects of managing FOI responsibilities. Understandably it includes a section on how and why records management issues are crucial to access to information regimes.

Research of this nature is rare, and many of the findings are likely to be of universal application.

The key findings of the report are:
  • In practice, freedom of information (FOI) works differently to the ideal vision of how it should work.
  • The costs and benefits of FOI are unclear; further research is required to assess each.
  • Monitoring FOI forms an important component in any successful implementation; however ,monitoring requirements and standards vary considerably across the USA, Canada, and the UK.
  • There is a core set of exemptions common to almost all FOI laws, which includes those relating to national defense, international relations, personal information, legal proceedings and policy advice.
  • Some FOI regimes, most notably the UK’s (which entails a "government veto" that enables it to withhold information), illustrate a certain degree of reluctance to move to genuinely "open government".
  • The proportion of a country’s population that use FOI is very small. Citizens in the United States are more active users of FOI than citizens in the United Kingdom or Canada. Despite what one might think, most journalists do not use the Act; how a core group of reporters and editors do use the legislation; often to great effect.
  • Private individuals (i.e. ‘members of the public’), businesses and the media are the most frequent users of FOI.
  • There are very few FOI ‘horror stories’; the release of information has rarely impacted negatively on the public interest.
  • The new security environment has had a marked impact on freedom of information, especially in the United States where several measures have been introduced to restrict access to information.
  • In spite of drawbacks and problems encountered in each jurisdiction, more information is being released into the public domain and there are signs that FOI legislation helps create a greater culture of openness in government.
  • Records management is at the heart of successful implementation of FOI legislation; essentially, if the information cannot be efficiently located it is unlikely to be released.
Thanks to Steve Wood's UK FOIA blog for the lead

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