Freedom of information law and trust in government: A case from Scotland

By Gemma John

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (‘FOISA’) came into force in 2005. Following a long history of ‘official secrecy’ in Britain, the Act changes what has been described as a culture of ‘secrecy’ to a culture of ‘openness’. Rather than retaining information, civil servants are now expected to disclose it, in response to requests for information from citizens. FOISA was enacted as a means of overcoming a crisis in trust in government. It has been said that citizens do not vote because they do not trust government bodies to makes decisions in their interests. Providing access to information held by government bodies is a means of holding government to account – it is a means of enabling citizens to participate in government to ensure that their interests are taken into account and it also provides them with evidence of their input. For example, by obtaining information citizens can read whether their views have played a role in democratic decision-making. The Act devolves decision-making power to citizens and, as such, appears an effective form of legal empowerment.

But does providing citizens with access to information give rise to more trust? What is necessary for trust in government? O’Neill (2002) notes that ‘Reasonably placed trust requires not only information about the proposals or undertakings that others put forward, but also information about those who put them forward’. This post explores how citizens requesting information under FOISA not only required access to information in order to trust public organizations but also access to people holding the information. It was trust in people that brought trust in information.

The Act devolves decision-making power to citizens and, as such, appears an effective form of legal empowerment.

FOISA provides access to information held by organizations such as local government, the police force, hospitals, universities and so forth. It not only provides access to information held by these bodies but also to the civil servants working for them. Under the Act civil servants are legally obliged to provide citizens with advice and assistance.

Prior to the Act, civil servants were never accessible, and certainly not obliged to respond to enquiries (by phone or e-mail) from citizens. The Act gives citizens direct access to public servants responsible for making decisions that has a significant impact on their lives. Now, citizens not only have access to the decisions made by public servants, they also have access to the decision-makers. It became apparent that citizens enjoyed their new right to access public servants under the Act as much as they did their new right to access information. Citizens take every opportunity to contact civil servants working for a government body.

In some cases, citizens will submit a request for information under FOISA, but they will not pursue it under FOISA. They will cite the Act in order to get leverage, generate interest in their enquiry, but they will not necessarily insist that their request is dealt with in the context of the law. The law places constraints on the kind of information they are able to obtain. For example, it covers written information, but not unwritten thoughts and opinion. In some cases, citizens want to know what a public servant thinks.

George, one citizen with whom I spent considerable time, wanted information concerning a decision made by his local council to close a school in his area. George is a resident of a small town on the east coast of Scotland called Edendale. He is a retired business systems analyst. The council decided to close the school because it said it was not ‘fit for purpose’. It turns out that by not ‘fit for purpose’ the council meant (as George explained) that ‘It’s a Victorian building, it doesn’t now meet modern educational standards and so on, and so that’s the reason [it’s being closed]’. His daughter attends the school and, as George continued, it is a ‘very good school’. He did not agree with the council’s decision to close it because ‘the building is far less important than the [school] ethos’.

Making contact with civil servants appears to be crucial.  Citizens enjoyed their new right to access public servants under the Act as much as they did their new right to access information.

George used FOISA to obtain information that enabled him to understand what the council meant by ‘fit for purpose’. But rather than wait for the council to disclose information under FOISA, he took up the offer of a senior civil servant named Peter, who offered to deal with George’s enquiry ‘off the record’. Pursing George’s enquiry ‘off the record’ was mutually advantageous. George was able to obtain the recorded information for which he had asked as well as some unrecorded thoughts and opinions. It was by making contact with Peter, and speaking to him in person, that George obtained two kinds of ‘information’ – one recorded and public and the other unrecorded and personal. Meanwhile Peter was able to control how much information he disclosed and to whom. The information he disclosed was not available to everyone.

Rather than focussing on why the information he disclosed was not more widely shared – I would like to focus on why such exchanges were necessary.

FOI in Scotland has become a tool that citizens can use to initiate contact with civil servants. In so doing, citizens are able to obtain a deeper understanding of government bodies and at the same time insight into government decision-making from the perspective of the civil servants making the decisions.

Making contact with civil servants appears to be crucial. It enables citizens to make sense of the information that they receive from government bodies, which is often not in a language that citizens understand, and also render it meaningful.

The information they receive is meaningful (both ‘on’ and ‘off the record’) because they have come to trust in the civil servants disclosing it. It was trust in the civil servants disclosing the information that turned it into ‘knowledge’. In other words, this personal exchange between citizen and civil servant rendered a government body not only ‘open’ but also ‘transparent’.

Whilst FOISA provides citizens such as George with access to information held by government bodies such as his local council, it is not the fact that FOISA provides access to information per se that gives rise to trust in government, but the fact that FOISA also provides access to the civil servants disclosing it.

Author’s note: In order to protect the identity of the people who participated in this research the names used in this blog entry are pseudonyms.

GemmaJohn_photoGemma John is a social anthropologist. She conducted long-term research on the reception, implementation, and use of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. She is more broadly interested in how the relationship between state and citizens is changing as a result of measures to devolve government in the UK. She is currently affiliated to the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) in Manchester. Her book on the outcomes of Freedom of Information law in Scotland will be published in 2014.



August 23, 2013 | Namati