All around the world, very real benefits result when legal tools are used to obtain government information.
Because there are so many frustrations for those who seek information, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the positive benefits. Freedom of information (FOI) reform advocates need to document and celebrate the victories.
Collecting Success Stories
FreedomInfo.org has assembled dozens of recent success stories. The FOI impact stories, small and large, were compiled from many sources.
They were culled from hundreds of media accounts and contributed by FOI advocates. They all come from the past year, although most of the requests were filed much earlier.
The stories are grouped (with links to longer descriptions) into subject categories.
- Health Care
- Public Safety
- Human Rights
- Personal/Local Benefit
- Historical Record
- Open Data
- Government Operations
This July, a collection of US FOIA success stories was done by the National Security Archive, FreedomInfo.org’s publisher, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US FOIA. The UK group My Society has documented good outcomes at request sites it helped to build around the world.
How Many Successes?
The number of examples here is dwarfed by the magnitude of requests made in the 113 countries with FOI regimes.
In India, 4.5 million requests were filed nationally and locally in 2014, according to a study. Other national figures for 2015: United States, 713,168; Mexico, 150,595; New Zealand, 90,000. There is no credible global estimate of FOI requests.
A high percentage of requests are rejected in full or in part – so it’s also virtually impossible to calculate the number of successful requests.
But individual stories have power.
Legendary Indian RTI advocate Aruna Roy recently told of Bashir, a Kashmir resident, who was shocked when a Chief Minister arrived in a helicopter for a visit. Bashir filed an RTI petition on why the minister took the chopper and how much it cost. “Apparently embarrassed to explain that the village has no accessible roads, the state administration soon laid roads,” an article about the story said, “Bashir is now a local legend.”
Academic Verification Illusive
Academic precision? Not here. This is a celebration with anecdotes.
FOI advocates often begin making their case by stressing that access to information is a recognized human right. It’s further argued that FOI improves government performance, reduces corruption, increases citizen trust in government, among other things.
Proving these things with academic precision, however, presents so many theoretical and practical difficulties that studies have rarely been attempted. Not only are there multiple objectives to be examined, but also the tracing of cause and effect is extremely tricky.
One study in the United Kingdom recently found FOIA requests to be more effective than informal inquiries in small government entities in the United Kingdom. (The same study includes a good summary of the academic literature.)
In India, right to information requests rivaled bribery as an effective way to cut through bureaucratic red tape in India, according to two studies by U.S. academics.
What’s a passing score for effectiveness anyway?
Is unmasking one corrupt politician a sufficiently impressive benefit?
What’s the value of one Bangladeshi woman winning a bureaucratic struggle?
Examples of Success Stories
- Rezia Khatun, a 36-year-old Bangladeshi woman, submitted an RTI request about whom was getting Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) cards after she herself was denied one. She now has government benefits.
- The Southern Peasants Federation of Thailand used the Official Information Act as a key weapon to investigate government property that had long been in the grip of investors, managing to get it redistributed to farmers as part of Thai land reforms.
- A Ugandan civil society organization, Kick Corruption out of Kigezi (KICK) exposed fraud in the constructions of school buildings. The discovery led to an official visit and efforts to remedy the problem.
- A series of FOIA requests submitted by the ACLU of Michigan and Virginia Tech researchers helped expose both the cost-driven decisions not to add corrosion controls to Flint’s water supply resulting in lead contamination, and the cover-up to hide the grave mistake.
- People living around two power plants in western India have long been complaining of ill effects of air pollution. Now government figures are available to support their claims. Information obtained by an activist shows that over 6,000 persons were affected by air pollution in the area in 2015.
- Mexican women in the village of Lazaro Cardenas in Chiapas used an FOI request to discover that the village had a budget to contract a doctor and buy medicines. The women demanded that authorities fulfill their obligation and two months later, a doctor was assigned to the community.
- Requests for information about contracts to provide school supplies in Malawi laid the groundwork for fieldwork that proved they were not delivered. Finally, the supplier was forced to reimburse all funds meant for the supplies.
- Australian police use banned restraint techniques on asylum seekers, according to Detention Logs, a project that publishes data, documents and investigations that reveal government information on conditions and events inside Australia’s immigration detention network.
- German police registered a 30 percent increase in xenophobic violence within nine months of 2016, according to information obtained by the Green Party from the Interior Ministry under freedom of information act.
- The Rwandan parliament now publishes the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule of debates/activities for each day on the homepage of their official website (under ‘Today in Parliament’). This follows an FOI request on Rwandan Alaveteli site Sobanukirwa, which urges the parliament to do just that.
This story was originally published on the FreedomInfo.org website and is reprinted with permission.
Toby McIntosh is executive editor at FreedomInfo.org. He is also director, editorial quality review, of the Washington, D.C.-based Bureau of National Affairs’ “Daily Report for Executives” and steering committee coordinator of the Global Transparency Initiative.