Governments in the spotlight? : on the use and impacts of freedom of information laws and proactive publication of government data

  • Maria Zuffova

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

In election times, political parties promise in their manifestos to pass reforms increasing access to government information to root out corruption and improve public service delivery. Scholars have already offered several fascinating explanations of why governments adopt policies that constrain their choices. However, knowledge of their impacts is limited. Does greater access to information deliver on its promises as an anti-corruption policy? While some research has already addressed this question concerning freedom of information (FOI) laws, the emergence of new digital technologies enabled new policies, such as open government data. Its effect on corruption and government accountability remains empirically underexplored due to its novelty and a lack of measurements. The following pages aim to fill this gap. I propose a theoretical framework which specifies conditions necessary for FOI laws and open government data to affect corruption, and I test it on a novel cross-country dataset collated for this thesis. The results suggest that the effect of both FOI laws and open government data on corruption is conditional upon the quality of media freedom. Moreover, other factors, such as free and fair elections, independent and accountable judiciary or economic development, are far more critical for tackling corruption than increasing access to information.These findings have important policy implications. In particular, digital transparency reforms will unlikely yield results in the anti-corruption fight unless robust provisions safeguarding media freedom complement them. While a cross-country approach has revealed the importance of the media’s role as an information intermediary, it does not enable for an in-depth understanding of how media engage with government information. Therefore, in addition to comparative cross-country analysis, two empirical chapters focus on the UK case study. I combine various methods: survey of investigative journalists, qualitative interviews with civic activists and civil servants and quantitative text analysis of FOI requests sent to the UK central government from 2008 to 2017 to investigate how different groups engage with FOI laws and open government data and what their demand for government information is. I find that the use of FOI laws is very heterogeneous. By no means, the proactive publication of open government data could address such a diverse demand, and thus it could not substitute FOI laws. A substantial proportion of topics, which occur in FOI requests covers information in the public interest. However, some FOI uses for private ends could also be linked to the concept of accountability, as they often point to the failure of other government communication channels and poor explanation of newly introduced policies. My work also shows the potential of applying computational social science methods to FOI requests to study the impact of major changes in government policies on people, and rights infringements.
Date of Award22 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SponsorsUniversity of Strathclyde
SupervisorHeinz Brandenburg (Supervisor) & Zachary Greene (Supervisor)

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