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United Kingdom

Public Sector & Governance


Summary [ Full Document PDF 803K ]

UK CoverNarrowly construed, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the United Kingdom (UK) was just under 10 years in the making. The law passed in 2000, and entered into force progressively between November 30, 2000, and January 1, 2005, when the right of access to official documents came into effect.

It is reasonable to conclude that the FOIA has achieved modest success in its primary aim of improving transparency. Requesters have been able to obtain information that the government would have preferred not to disclose (such as documents relating to policy decisions) or that it actively sought to withhold (such as parliamentary expenses). It provides a set of rules for resolving disputes about what information should be available, and this has proved to be generally beneficial to requesters. Civil society organizations have used the requests and appeals process for their strategic advantage, with policy-related information now available on request and other types of information routinely published despite early refusals by the government to do so (such as salary data for local governments).

Institutional contributors to the law's success include the legislation itself, which is not perfect but which compares favorably against similar laws in other countries as well as the presence of an information commissioner with strong formal powers. The need for effective practical oversight and enforcement mechanisms was underscored by the appeals backlog that was built up in the early years of the law, undermining the information commissioner’s moral authority as well as the levels of compliance among other public authorities.

In general, the prevalence of the rule of law and the high infrastructural capacity of the British state have allowed authorities to implement the FOIA using existing resources, and the existence of a strong and varied domestic constituency has been an essential contributor to the development, preparation, and implementation of the law. Repeated requests by journalists and civil society organizations, coupled with strategic appeals, have unquestionably led to the proactive publication of information that had been previously withheld on a routine basis in the first few years after the FOIA came into effect.

The FOIA has been reasonably successful in achieving its immediate goals, but its impact has been uneven. For example, information about how much money the government spends is much easier to obtain than information about policy discussions; this variability of impact suggests that the underlying structure of power in the United Kingdom has influenced the FOIA rather than the FOIA radically transforming it.

The FOIA was the outcome of several long-term trends in the UK, notably the contradictory nature of party competition and centralized authority and the slow, continuing separation of political authority from the responsibilities of routine administrative processes occurring in the context of an increasingly mediated and digitized society. These factors together suggest a cautious optimism about the prospects for transparency over the long term, but their ongoing entrenchment cannot be taken for granted in the short term; the principle of ATI will likely remain contested for the foreseeable future. Strong transparency mechanisms and a vibrant civil society will continue to be essential guarantors of the development of the FOIA.

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