This article was first published by the Huffington Post.
Last week the Constitution Unit at UCL published a fascinating report, Town Hall Transparency, assessing the impact that Freedom of Information has had on local democracy and government in England.
The study found that local government receives the majority of FoI requests – with numbers increasing fourfold from 60,000 in 2005 to nearly 200,000 in 2010. In comparison, central government received just 25,000 in 2005 rising 40,000 in 2009.
Unfortunately, FoI appears to have had very little impact on the numbers of people taking part in local politics – six out of ten requests are from NGOs, campaigner organisations or the media. Requests from the public are often niche and concern issues of very personal interest.
This makes it hard for us to really know what requesters do with the information. Aside from those stories that make the media – like this story about how a council spend £7,000 a year on 30 different varieties of pen – it is, in general therefore, hard to assess the democratic impact Freedom of Information is having and the UCL report concludes that FOI has not impacted significantly on how local government works.
Nonetheless, the UCL team do find that the Act has helped “increase public understanding of decision making in a ‘picture building’ way at a very low level” such as decision-making around the granting of a licence for a particular shop.
So far, so marginal? For many this will seem pretty small beer compared to the claims that were made for FoI on its introductions. I’d argue, however, that even if FoI has not so far had a massive direct impact, it has put in place important pre-conditions for a renaissance of civic democracy.
We know that many of the greatest challenges we face as a society, such as reforming public services, rebuilding local economies and caring for an ageing population cannot be met by centralised, one-size-fits-all solutions rolled out from central government. Instead, we need to build upon and aggregate local innovation driven by local communities.
The new Localism Act responds to this agenda by giving citizens and community groups new powers over council tax levels, neighbourhood planning, community buildings and how local services are run (and who runs them). But while the devolution of power to local level is to be welcomed, for this to work there has to be demand within communities to take advantage of the raft of provisions coming their way. There also has to be enough information available for them to make good decisions about how to do so and most importantly about what the benefits of doing so might be.
This is where FoI comes in. The scenario that many opendata campaigners yearn for is one where the Freedom of Information Act actually becomes irrelevant because all data is already available and free to all to use and make interesting things with. This is where the real democratic value is. It will be sites like OpenlyLocal and citizen-led hyper-local websites that contextualise data, so that people can connect, debate and even mobilise around purposive information. We are still some way from this point, but we are on the road towards it.
The UCL report concludes that “The FoI Act has made councils more open and transparent”. It may not have radically changed how government works, but underneath the headlines, FoI is already being used day-to-day by the public to find out things that really matters to their lives. In that sense it is a good foundation to build upon: a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition for the re-invigoration of local democracy we so desperately need.