Evaluating Freedom of Information
12 December 2014
Research at the UCL Constitution Unit informed post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2011-12. The Unit developed the conceptual approach to evaluate the impact of the Act, and provided much of the evidence base, contributing to the decision that the Act would not be significantly amended.
Freedom of Information (FOI) is supposed to be a good thing - but why? What is it good for? The FOI Act 2000 created a public right of access to information held by public authorities, but has since come in for substantial criticism: former prime minister Tony Blair called the passage of the act one of the biggest mistakes of his career, and there is a widespread belief that it has had an inhibiting 'chilling effect' on frank discussion within government.
To assess the effectiveness of the FOI Act, Professor Robert Hazell (UCL School of Public Policy) led researchers at the UCL Constitution Unit in a series of projects which analysed the objectives of the Act and developed a framework for evaluating its impact.
They found that FOI has two primary aims, to increase transparency and accountability, and four secondary aims, to improve decision-making, and to improve public understanding, participation and trust. They concluded that the FOI Act had delivered on the two primary aims but not the four secondary ones. However, they also found no evidence that the Act had adversely affected deliberation within Whitehall or local government; any 'chilling effect' was attributable to fear of leaks, not FOI.
In 2012, the Commons Justice Committee conducted a post-legislative review of the FOI Act, heavily informed by a Ministry of Justice memorandum submitted in 2011 to that review. The MoJ memorandum relied heavily on the UCL research, and came to similar conclusions as Professor Hazell's team as to the success of FOI.
We were surprised and delighted when the MoJ and the Commons Justice Committee both drew so extensively on our research into the impact of FOI. - Professor Robert Hazell
The Justice Committee's post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act also depended heavily on the UCL research, both via the MoJ memorandum and through evidence submitted directly by the UCL research team. It, too, came to similar conclusions, arguing that the two primary objectives identified by Professor Hazell's team had been achieved but the four secondary objectives had not. The committee's report cited the UCL research extensively, and explicitly recognised the rigour of this research.
The Justice Committee concluded that there was no hard evidence that FOI had a chilling effect, and that it could not recommend reducing the openness of the FOI Act.
Aspects of the research were funded by the ESRC.