The right to access information requires high quality oversight. Studies of effectiveness of Access to Information (ATI) legislation tells a clear story: the benefits of greater transparency and access to information can only be realised when this system is actively enforced. To be effective, the whole system of ATI review and appeal has to be designed as a system of cultural change. The system has to use limited resources in a strategic way to reform cultures of unnecessary secrecy in government that protect corruption and inefficiency in public life.
Building on a comprehensive picture of appeal systems and processes across Europe, our new report argues for the value of specialised oversight bodies (Information Commissioners), who have independence from government and the power to compel compliance from authorities. In countries that use a system of internal review, better monitoring and interventions are necessary to ensure this system enhances rather than detracts from access to information.
Summary of recommendations:
- Better investment in the resources, capacities and independence of Information Commissioners improves the quality of the ATI regime, attacks corruption, and strengthens good governance.
- Specialist Information commissioners are preferable to general ombudsman, bringing more specific knowledge, and are a more suitable structure to shepherd the access to information regime.
- The power to enforce decisions is a required tool for driving culture change in public authorities.
- Systems of internal review should be replaced by commissioner-led systems of appeal, where information commissioners have understanding of appeals across the entire system, and can use internal review as a strategic choice, rather than a hurdle before an appeal can be considered.
- In general, oversight bodies and civil society rarely have high quality information about full workings of the ATI system. We argue that better quality statistics are a valuable tool in demonstrating the value of the system, and in allowing targeted focus on problems.
Fundamentally, good ATI regimes are important because of the effects they have in society, strengthening anti-corruption and good policy-making approaches. Better oversight is a cost-effective way of unlocking these wider benefits. This report explores how technical details of how the oversight system works are important in achieving these overall objectives.