In late 2009, several countries embarked on initiatives in what is often referred
to as “open government,” ranging from proactive disclosure of government
data to more comprehensive attempts at interactive policymaking with citizens.
This process is also referred to as “e-government,” “e-governance” or “e-participation,”
whereby citizens are not only able to obtain electronic access to government
documents and services, but are also able to give feedback on matters ranging
from individual service problems to statistics and policy.
While some countries have had proactive disclosure of government documents
for some time, the advent of an increasing number of electronic technologies
is opening up new possibilities. These include open data portals that allow citizens
access to raw data that they can analyze for themselves, and searchable online
databases of government documents and access request mechanisms. Proactive disclosure
and open data are emerging as building blocks of what is sometimes also referred
to as “Government 2.0.” Many
municipal and local governments, including some in Canada, have also started
rolling out open data web portals that provide raw government data to the public.
The government of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New
Zealand all made major announcements regarding the launch of open data and other
proactive disclosure initiatives in late 2009. Other countries, such as Mexico,
India and Finland have had some form of proactive disclosure in place for some
This paper will look at the development of proactive disclosure systems in
the United States and selected other countries. Another paper in this series
will provide examples of the proactive disclosure systems that are developing
or already in place in Canada.
2 United States
During 2009–2010, numerous open government and proactive disclosure initiatives
have taken place in the United States, beginning with President Barack Obama’s
Memorandum on transparency and open government, and culminating with the December 2009 release of the Open Government Directive
to executive departments and agencies.
The principle of openness underlying the President’s various initiatives over
the past year is consistent with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).As noted in the US Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act,
Proactive disclosures – where agencies make their records publicly
available without waiting for specific requests from the public – are an integral
part of the Freedom of Information Act. All federal agencies are required
to affirmatively and continuously disclose records proactively by subsection (a)(2)
of the FOIA. Although this “proactive disclosure provision” has always served a vital role in achieving an “informed citizenry” – the central purpose of the FOIA – now, proactive disclosures are in the spotlight like never before [citations in original; emphasis added].
According to the FOIA, agencies are required to proactively disclose four
categories of records: (1) “final
opinions [and] … orders” rendered in the adjudication of administrative cases, (2) specific agency policy statements, (3) certain
administrative staff manuals “that affect a member of the public,” and
(4) records which have been released under subsection (a)(3) (i.e., by way
of a specific request) that “the agency determines have become, or are likely
to become, the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.”
On his first full day in office, 21 January 2009, President Obama issued a
Memorandum to the heads of all departments and agencies emphasizing that the
FOIA reflects a “profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government”
and directing agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.” As stated in the Memorandum:
All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to
renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a
new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to
all decisions involving FOIA.
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative
steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests
from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens
about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.
The President then directed the Attorney General to issue FOIA Guidelines
for the heads of executive departments and agencies “reaffirming the commitment
to accountability and transparency.” Attorney General Eric Holder issued
those Guidelines on 19 March 2009, and highlighted that the FOIA “reflects
our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government” and that his Guidelines
are “meant to underscore that commitment and to ensure that it is realized in
practice.” As stated in the Guidelines:
Open government requires agencies to work proactively and respond
to requests promptly. The President’s memorandum instructs agencies to
“use modem technology to inform citizens what is known and done by their Government.”
Accordingly, agencies should readily and systematically post information online
in advance of any public request. Providing more information online reduces the
need for individualized requests and may help reduce existing backlogs. When
information not previously disclosed is requested, agencies should make it a
priority to respond in a timely manner. Timely disclosure of information is an
essential component of transparency. Long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable
and insurmountable consequence of high demand.
In May 2009 the Administration launched Data.gov, a
website that makes economic, health care, environmental, and other information
available in multiple electronic formats, providing the public with access to
more government information online than ever before. Its stated purpose is “to
increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by
the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.” It provides descriptions of
the federal data sets (metadata), information about how to access the data sets,
and tools that leverage government data sets. The first version of Data.gov contains
federal Executive Branch data; the data catalogues will continue to grow
as data sets are added. Data.gov also offers access to software tools, such as
one for tracking the performance of flights. As
noted on the website, “Data.gov strives to make government more transparent and
is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. The
openness derived from Data.gov will strengthen our Nation’s democracy and promote
efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
In December 2009 the Administration took its most expansive step towards disclosure
with the release of the Open Government Directive by the White House
Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This
policy guidance, called for in President Obama’s FOIA Memorandum, directs executive
departments and agencies to take specific actions to implement the principles
of transparency, participation and collaboration set forth in the President’s
FOIA Memorandum. The directive comprises four main components centred on the
following themes: publishing information; creating a culture of openness; improving
data quality; and updating policies to allow for greater openness. Each section
tasks agencies and other key offices with specific goals, complete with deadlines
and clear requirements that the public be informed and permitted to participate
in almost every project.
For example, the section on publishing government data online reinforces and
broadens the presumption of openness discussed in Attorney General Holder’s FOIA
Guidelines. Agencies are instructed to “proactively” make information available
instead of waiting for specific requests under the FOIA. “With respect to information,
the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law
and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions),”
according to the directive. The section also instructs agencies, to the
extent practicable, to publish information in open formats that can be “retrieved,
downloaded, indexed, and searched by commonly used web search applications.”
The Open Government Directive focuses attention on specific kinds of information.
The directive requires that annual FOIA reports be published online in machine-readable
formats, and that agencies demonstrate how they are improving records management
and publishing online information about how to access declassified agency materials.
It also requires agencies to solicit public input about what types of materials
to prioritize for declassification in the future.
The Open Government Directive outlined a series of milestones that government
agencies and departments were expected to meet over the four months following
its release on 8 December 2009:
- By 22 January 2010 (within 45 days), each agency was to have published at
least three new, high-value data sets on Data.gov. The
directive also called for the establishment of a federal working group on open
government. OMB Watch, a non-profit research and advocacy organization that monitors federal regulation, the budget, information collection and dissemination, proposed legislation,
testimony by agencies, and more, offered the following assessment after the 22 January 2010
release of the “high-value data sets” on Data.gov: “Many transparency advocates
have lauded the administration’s efforts while at the same time raising
questions about how well this first initiative under the OGD actually worked.
The release of the datasets has triggered discussions about the value of the
data, how individual privacy rights are protected, whether the datasets being
released are new, and the quality of the data that has been released.” Despite the challenges and questions raised by the 22 January 2010 release of data, OMB
Watch nonetheless took a positive view of the Obama Administration’s open
Overall, the effort demonstrated that if the government can push
out this much data in 45 days, then what it is able to accomplish is quite promising. It should be noted that most of the datasets are only available in raw formats,
and some of the files are quite large, ranging upward to several hundred megabytes.
The general public will find them of limited use. The hope is that public interest
groups, reporters, academics, and others will review the information, build interfaces,
and report on findings. As agencies move forward with this process, it will be
important for them to identify the most important and useful datasets and develop
their own interfaces to allow broader public review of the information. The administration’s
ongoing dialogue with partner groups and the public will likely be key in identifying
these top datasets.
- By 6 February 2010 (within 60 days), each agency was to have created a web page
devoted to its open government activities. Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh
Chopra and federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra created a dashboard
to track agencies’ plans and progress.
- On 8 March 2010 (within 90 days), chief performance officer Jeffrey Zients
issued a framework that agencies can use for incentive-backed strategies related
to their open government efforts. In a memo issued on the same day, Mr.
Zients laid out guidance for how federal agencies could use challenges and prizes
to further their missions, and announced that the administration would be releasing
web-based platform to manage such contests within the next 120 days. The White
House is encouraging federal agencies to use challenges and prizes to crowdsource new approaches to open government, innovation and other administration priorities.
Finally, by 7 April 2010 (within 120 days), agencies were to have published
their open government plans, outlining steps for improving transparency and for
promoting public participation and collaboration. As noted on the White House’s
Open Government Initiative Blog, the plans “are the agencies’ strategic roadmap
for making openness – transparency, citizen participation, and collaboration
– part of the way that the federal government works.” According
to OMB Watch, “The agency Open Government Plans probably represent the largest
single coordinated effort by the federal government to make itself more
transparent, participatory and collaborative. While not everything being released
is a major leap forward, this process being established provides the public
with a major vehicle to achieve continual improvements. Almost all the agencies
have described the plans as a first step or version 1.0 of their open government
efforts, with plans to collect reactions and input and update the plans regularly.” For
example, the Department of Justice plans to create a Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) dashboard to provide easy access to comprehensive data on FOIA
compliance at 92 federal agencies. The goal of the dashboard is to allow the
public to generate statistics on FOIA compliance across the government and from
year to year. It is hoped that, in addition to promoting transparency, the
Dashboard will also have the effect of encouraging FOIA offices across the government
“to improve their compliance efforts and release as much information to the public
under FOIA as possible.”
In Mexico, national legislation in effect since 2003 requires
that 17 specified categories of government information be proactively disclosed
to the public online in an accessible electronic format. This
legislation also imposes a positive duty to assist members of the public
by providing them with access to a computer for this information if required, an item that may have been included because of infrastructure issues. According to current statistics, only about 23 million people, approximately 20% of the population, have regular access to the Internet in Mexico.
The categories of information to be disclosed include information about public
finances and debt, departmental budgets and expenses, audit results, the design
and execution of subsidy programs, and a list of specific details for each government
contract. Also included is a general requirement for proactive disclosure of “any other information that may be useful or considered relevant” [translation], including statistical surveys and answers to the public’s “most frequently asked questions” [translation].
Mexico has a central portal called the Portal de Obligaciones de Transparencia [Transparency
Portal] through which its citizens can access all of this information, with the
information organized under the headings of each of the 17 categories under the
law. The portal
itself is not run by the Mexican government, which distributes the disclosed
information through its various agency (departmental) websites. It is run
by the Mexican equivalent of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), an
autonomous oversight agency created under the 2003 law, whose
activities have been the subject of worldwide study since its inception. The
aim of IFAI’s Transparency Portal is to concentrate all of the proactively
disclosed information of the government in one place for easy searchable
access by the public.
Use of the Transparency Portal has been high, with 18 million visits
and approximately 30,000 searches per day during its first year of operation
(2007). Users can search for and compare information by item, category and name. The most commonly searched category of information has been the directory of government officials (25%), followed by government salaries and benefits (17%), contracts (15%), and authorizations, licences and concessions (6%).
IFAI has been monitoring the compliance of Mexican government agencies with
proactive disclosure obligations and has found the rate of compliance to be high.
Under its initial monitoring methodology, IFAI found that approximately 95% to
96% of Mexican agencies were in full compliance with the laws between 2005 and
2007. This percentage
dropped to 82.5% in 2008, when IFAI introduced a much more stringent monitoring
also issues annual ratings of individual agency proactive disclosure websites.
In addition, IFAI runs an online system that allows citizens to make freedom
of information requests electronically, colloquially known as SISI, which
has been integrated into a parallel request system called INFOMEX also
used by many state and municipal governments in Mexico. The
original version of SISI processed 40,000 requests in its first year
of operations. (Despite
the limited Internet penetration in Mexico, over 90% of Mexico’s freedom of information
requests are made electronically.) IFAI
is currently in negotiations with the Mexican government to have this site
added to the government’s “e-Mexico” portal of
government services, which is expanding.
IFAI also runs a public online searchable database of government documents
that have already been disclosed in response to access requests made through
SISI, which is called ZOOM. Users
can search the documents by keyword, phrase, date or agency.
4 United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, a report entitled Putting the Frontline First:
Smarter Government was presented to Parliament in December 2009 by the Chief
Secretary to the Treasury. This
report contains an “Action Plan” intended to save the government £12 billion
a year on top of savings already projected in past efficiency plans and
budgets. In addition
to further innovations in the area of electronic service delivery, the report
recommends moving to an online proactive disclosure model for government data.
The report provides seven “commitments” that it refers to as the government’s
“public data principles”:
- Public data will be published in reusable, machine-readable form.
- Public data will be available and easy to find through a single easy-to-use
online access point (www.data.gov.uk).
- Public data will be published using open standards and following the recommendations
of the World Wide Web Consortium.
- Any “raw” data set will be represented in linked data form.
- More public data will be released under an open licence which enables free
reuse, including commercial reuse.
- Data underlying the Government’s websites will be published in reusable form
for others to use.
- Personal, classified, commercially sensitive and third-party data will continue
to be protected.
As outlined in the first paper in this series, the
purpose of providing access to reusable government data in open standard format
is to enable citizens to do their own number crunching and information analysis,
sometimes using self-designed digital tools, in order to come to their own
policy-making conclusions. This is the model often referred to as full “e-government,”
where the public and affected groups are given access to the same information
base that the government and civil service have used to analyze a particular
issue, program or service, and interested parties are invited to give feedback
and/or propose their own policy ideas.
Putting the Frontline First states that the government’s aims in
implementing this public data model are to make all government data accessible
and provide new digital channels through which citizens may engage with
government. The aim is to devolve decision-making, allowing communities
a stronger say in choices of government programs and services, and providing
the populace with better value for money.
The initiative appears to be part of a larger policy focused on decentralization
of government decision-making and an increase in local input. For example, the report states:
… the government will underpin streamlined performance measures with
more widely available data on frontline organizations. These data will drive
professionally led improvement at a local level by exposing variations in quality
and cost across the public sector. It [sic] will also inform interventions
from central government, so that the best-performing organizations have more
freedom from central control.
The government has targeted five particular sectors for the release of data
in reusable form, which will allow independent “mashing up” and
analysis of the data by individual members of the public for the purposes of
policy-making. These sectors are local government, health, education, criminal
justice and police forces. Other
types of benchmarking data relating to civil service departmental performance,
as well as to government procurement, property holdings and asset management,
will be released as well.
The report concludes with a “Forward Plan” which contains a step-by-step outline
for implementation of the recommendations, the majority of which appear
to have a deadline of 2010 or 2011.
In March 2010, the government released a “Budget progress update” which detailed
the implementation steps that had been taken so far and included a section on
“opening up data and public information.” The update noted that the government’s
open data portal data.gov.uk was launched in January 2010, and that
over 3,000 data sets are now available through the portal, far exceeding the
initial target of 1,100 data sets. Public developers have been creating digital
tools to mash up the information, including a “Research Funding Explorer” application
and a “Where Does My Money Go?” application. Ordnance survey data from the British
government’s mapping activities is slated to be added to the site in April
The report of Australia’s Government 2.0 Taskforce was presented to its Special
Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary, and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation,
on 22 December 2009 and
was then immediately released to the public by those ministers. The
taskforce had been created in June 2009 as
an independent advisory body to provide assistance to the government in a pre-existing
initiative to increase the transparency of government operations and integrate
the newest generation of digital technology into how government is run.
This initiative appears to have had its origin in a larger government review
and modernization process called the “Reform of Australian Government Administration,”
launched in September 2009. A
KPMG survey initiated by the Australian government as part of this process found
that Australia’s public service was one of the worst among western democracies
in the provision of online access to government information and services.
The taskforce report recommends that the Australian government transition
to a full open government model, with 12 particular recommendations on how to
achieve it. A number of these recommendations, listed below, specifically
relate to the creation of a proactive disclosure system for government information,
documents and data:
- to make public sector information open, accessible and reusable;
- to address issues in the operation of copyright;
- to implement a proactive information publication scheme;
- to develop a best practices guide for ensuring technological security for online
- to protect personal and confidential information within the context of these portals;
- to update the definition of “Commonwealth Records” (government records) to accord with this system;
- to require that all government agencies conform with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in delivering data that are accessible to users with disabilities; and
- to encourage “info-philanthropy,” i.e., the participation of NGOs and other non-profits in developing digital tools and other initiatives to improve transparency and access with respect to government information and activities.
The report contains a section entitled “Managing public sector information
(PSI) as a national resource,” which outlines the taskforce’s view
of the rationale behind sharing government information openly:
Government has already invested in the production of this information.
It thus exists as a national asset. Internationally and nationally, there is
growing recognition of the extent to which PSI is a resource that should be managed
like any other valuable resource – that is to optimize its economic and social
value. Of course information is “non-rival”: Unlike physical goods and most services,
sharing it does not diminish its value – in fact […] it will typically increase
The report elaborates further on the theory of free access to government information
generating economic activity significant enough to offset the cost of producing
it and providing it without charge:
Once it is made freely available by governments, PSI has great economic
potential. According to a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2006
[…], the overall market size for PSI in the EU is estimated at EUR 27 billion.
Various international studies confirm economic benefits of open PSI licensing.
Often these benefits are so great that the increased corporate and individual
taxes on additional economic activity outweighs [sic] any revenue losses
from moving from charging for PSI to distributing it free of charge. Likewise
the 2007 UK Power of Information Review estimated the amount of money
generated by direct sales of information by UK trading funds to be much smaller
than the wider value of PSI to the economy.
The report also discusses how the distinctions sometimes made between differing
levels of access in the ongoing debate about the use and value of information
in the new economy should not, in the view of the report’s authors, apply to
government information holdings:
The central finding of this project is that, under the conditions
created by Web 2.0, making information effectively freely available (libre)
generally requires that it be provided free of charge (gratis). As the costs
of disseminating and accessing information have declined, the transactions costs
associated with charging for access to information, and controlling subsequent
redistribution have come to constitute a major barrier to access in themselves.
As a result, the case for free (gratis) provision of Public Sector Information
is even stronger than has already been recognized.
The taskforce took note of evidence suggesting that a zero price point greatly
increases the use of the access system by citizens. The report cites the example
of the Australian government’s provision of free online access to spatial (geographical)
data in 2001–2002 – use increased from 75,000 downloads in 2001–2002 to 863,000
downloads in 2005–2006. Similarly,
the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) saw a surge in downloads from 1 million
to 4 million during the first year public access was provided free of charge
to its online data.
Based on this evidence, the taskforce proposed that the Australian government
rethink the way it currently manages permissions under its Crown copyright scheme. It
suggested an alternative to a reactive scheme, where permissions must be
sought in advance on a request-by-request basis, since the older approach may
result in developers with applications or other uses for the data losing out
to competitors in another country or situation. The report proposed instead that
the Australian government take advantage of the widely used Creative Commons
licensing system, available on the web. Creative Commons is a collection of
pre-existing templates that owners of works can use to grant various digital
rights under their copyright, and it has become the default international standard
for this type of copyright arrangement. In
fact, the final taskforce report itself and all of its associated blog and documents
are governed by a Creative Commons
In addition to releasing its report, the taskforce also ran a “MashupAustralia”
contest, with the
aim of providing a demonstration of an open data approach to government information.
The taskforce worked with 15 government agencies and several state and territorial
governments to release 68 data sets for experimental
re-use by the public and individual developers.
The taskforce also hosted a “GovHack” event, inviting 150 web designers,
developers and other technical experts to build web applications and “mashups”
for government data over a 24-hour period in October 2009. In
addition, the taskforce conducted eight open public consultation forums between
August and September 2009, as well as roundtables of public and private stakeholders
in each state capital and in the country’s capital, Canberra.
The Australian government’s initial reaction to the taskforce report appears
to be positive. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation wrote a February 2010
editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper praising the report,
and recommending that the private sector review the implications of new data-sharing
models for its operations as well. In
the editorial, the Minister cites the example of a Canadian mining company, Goldcorp,
which decided to post proprietary data about its exploration and drilling decisions
online and ask for input from geologists, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars
in prizes to the best suggestions for innovation, and by doing so apparently
effected a turnaround of the company’s financial situation.
In April 2010, the Department of Finance and Deregulation announced via Twitter and
its own departmental blog that it will now allow its public servants to use social
media, and it proactively disclosed online the internal guidelines that have
been issued for the use of these media.
In addition, the Reform of Australian Government Administration initiative
released a report at the end of March 2010, calling for an open government
model as one of its nine recommendations for a modernized public service. The
summary recommendation on this point is as follows:
2. Creating more open government
2.1 Enable citizens to collaborate with government in policy
and service design
- Develop and implement new approaches to collaboration and consultation with
citizens on policy and service delivery issues.
- Make public sector data available to the wider public in a manner consistent
with privacy principles.
2.2 Conduct a citizen survey
- Conduct a survey of citizens’ views on their satisfaction with government
programs, services and regulation to inform government business.
- These surveys desirably would be expanded to include all levels of government.
In the full report, which has been posted online by the Australian Department
of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the “Vision for the Future” associated with
the open government recommendation is:
An APS that captures ideas and expertise through the transformative effect of technology by:
- Citizens directly communicating their views and expertise to government through
multiple channels, including Web 2.0 approaches (for example, online policy forums
- Greater disclosure of public sector data and mechanisms to access the data
so that citizens can use the data to create helpful information for all, in line
with privacy and secrecy principles; and
- Citizens become active participants involved in government, rather than
being passive recipients of services and policies.
The report has assigned the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and
the Department of Finance and Deregulation a joint lead role in implementing
this section of the report’s recommendations.
The introduction to the report on the web site of the Department of the Prime
Minister and Cabinet notes that the government is currently considering the recommendations
and “is expected to respond through the Budget process.”
6 New Zealand
The government of New Zealand launched an open data portal in
November 2009. This
is a pilot project which is scheduled to be reviewed by the government in June 2010. The
portal focuses on providing machine-readable data sets of raw government
information, although currently the majority of the information online appears
to be in HTML or spreadsheet format rather than re-usable XML and other
open standard formats. The portal also appears to be set up to link to the information
on the government departmental host websites rather than actually storing the
data sets on the site itself.
The site is regularly updated with links to new data sets as they are released
by government departments, and is organized into the following 21 categories:
- environment and conservation
- fiscal, tax and economics
- local and regional government
- Māori and Pasifika
- population and society
- science and research
- state sector performance
The approximately 275 data sets currently available through the site cover
a huge variety of topics, ranging from regional greenhouse gas inventories
to the country’s productivity statistics to education system outcomes. The
site features a “Discussion” section where members of the public can suggest
new data sets to be added, and
it also allows third parties such as NGOs to submit data set links that
they have collected.
The permissions for use for each data set listed appear to be set by the individual
department which issues that set. Like several other Commonwealth countries,
New Zealand has inherited the model of Crown copyright, and it has posted
is governed by one of the Creative Commons licences proposed as a model
in Australia’s taskforce report. However,
each data set the site links to is governed by the individual permissions listed
with that set on the site under the heading “Re-use Rights.” Where
no set of permissions is listed with the link, inquiries about re-use and distribution
must be directed to the issuing department.
With respect to proactive disclosure of government documents and other information,
New Zealand does have a request-based system that can result in complaints to
its ombudsmen regarding the withholding or delay of documents, yet it has long
been fairly common practice in New Zealand for some advice to ministers and Cabinet
documents to be routinely released as well. For
example, the Minister of Internal Affairs (who is the Minister responsible
for the open data portal project), upon appointment to his ministry and several
other high-level responsibilities in June 2009, posted copies of 14 internal
briefing notes he was given about his role online through the New Zealand government’s
central repository of communications releases, the public “Beehive” website.
The Law Commission of New Zealand, which plays an active and direct role in
the modernization of legislation in New Zealand, is currently conducting a review
of the country’s freedom of information law, the Official Information Act,
and related statutes. The deadline for public submissions was February 2010,
and the Commission expects to first publish an issues paper, and then provide
recommendations to the government, sometime later in the year.
Finland has a full legislated proactive disclosure system. Under Finland’s Act
on the Openness of Government Activities,most recentlyamended in 2002,
all official documents must be released into the public domain unless they fall
under certain specified exemptions. A
document is generally deemed to have officially entered the public domain when
it is entered in the public register. Certain
specified documents, including an invitation to tender, an invitation to provide
comment, a proposal, a proposition, a motion, a notification or a petition,
along with any appendices, enter the public domain as soon as they are signed
or similarly confirmed.
There are other cases where the entry into the public domain is tailored to
the circumstances in which the information is likely to be created – for example,
a request for information supplementary to a tender for a service or other
procurement contract enters into the public domain once the contract has been
propositions of government ministries and agencies enter the public domain
when the Ministry of Finance has signed its first position on the budget, and
other propositions related to the budget enter the public domain once the budget
proposal has been submitted to Parliament. There
are several other specifications for when particular documents enter the public
domain, including a “catch all” provision that indicates that documents not specified
in these categories enter the public domain “when the consideration of the pertinent
matter has been concluded by that authority.”
The legislation also requires that documents provided to a government authority
by third parties enter the public domain also, and specifies that this occurs
once the authority has received it from the third party, subject to certain exceptions.
Requests may also be made by the public for access to documents not yet in
the public domain, and the government has discretion to grant these requests
and release the document early, provided it does not fall within one of the exemptions
to proactive disclosure.
The exemptions in the Act are similar to the standard ones found in the access
legislation of most countries, including the countries already discussed in this
paper. The Finnish exemptions include documents involving:
- assessments of and negotiations with foreign countries, as well as international proceedings;
- criminal investigation reports and documents related to prosecution;
- police registers and crime prevention reports, as well as personal information relating to travel or identity documents;
- tactical and technical plans of the police, customs guards and other enforcement authorities;
- documents pertaining to adjudication processes that have not yet reached a conclusion;
- documents related to the security of infrastructure and persons;
- documents concerning emergency, accident preparation and civil defence if disclosure would compromise them;
- state security documents;
- military intelligence documents;
- documents relating to financial, income, monetary or foreign exchange policy if release would hamper their conduct;
- documents relating to the oversight of the financial markets and insurance operators if release would injure their credibility or functioning;
- advance statistics on the economy or operational plans if their early dissemination before normal proactive disclosure would affect the markets;
- information related to the protection of an environmental habitat if the habitat would be compromised;
- information that would interfere with inspections and other government oversight functions;
- any basic data voluntarily handed to the government for research purposes only;
- documents containing business or professional secrets; and
- several different categories of personal information that are spelled out in detail in the legislation.
All documents that fall into one or more of these categories are classified
as “secret” under the legislation, although
any portions of them that do not meet the definition are to be severed and provided
to the public on request where possible.
Certain kinds of documents are excluded from the definition of “official documents”
in the Act and are therefore not in the public domain or subject to the publication
requirement. These include letters sent to government officials that are not
related to their official capacity, informal notes kept by a government
official and draft documents that have not yet been presented or reviewed, internal
documents produced for training and information retrieval purposes, documents
given to a government official or authority for the performance of a task on
behalf of a private party, and documents left with or handed into an authority
as lost property.
However, members of the public who are involved in a court case or other type
of government hearing or investigation that may affect their interests are
allowed to have access to such documents if they are relevant to defending
their interests in those proceedings. The
only exceptions are documents that are part of an investigation that has not
yet been completed, draft decisions before they are final, court documents that
are privileged or similarly restricted, documents containing business or professional
secrets, or documents the release of which would be contrary to a “very important”
public interest. There is an additional exception for the personal
information of any party involved in a child welfare case.
Other features of the legislation include regulated requirements for managing
information and records so as to facilitate accessibility, and
a duty for government authorities to document their activities. There
is also a duty for the government to provide information on legislative
reform projects and/or “plans, accounts and decisions on pending matters of general
importance,” including information about impact assessments, the alternatives
considered, and the opportunities for private individuals and corporations to
exercise an influence.
While the legislation does not mandate open data arrangements, it appears
to have anticipated a possible demand for re-usable government data sets by the
public. It provides that such data sets can be made public in searchable
electronic format provided that secret and/or personal information under the
exemption categories is not disclosed.
The public register of proactively disclosed information appears to be online
in searchable format, through an electronic government repository of its legal
and preparatory documents, called HARE. Government
departments also have their own websites which have been actively promoting an
e-government approach in recent years, consistent
with the policies of the European Union.
In addition to other e-government portals that allow citizens to submit forms
and access government services electronically, the Finnish government has created
an interactive website that has been in operation for several years, called “Share
Your Views With Us” (http://otakantaa.fi/). This site was designed as a one-year
pilot mechanism for certain government ministries to consult citizens on policy-making,
but it was expanded to all ministries and adopted permanently in 2001. The
site includes background information and documents posted by the ministries to
help interested citizens understand the issues and provide feedback during the
development phase of various policies. No
registration is required for citizens to participate.
India also has a national proactive disclosure system mandated by legislation.
Under the Right to Information Act 2005,all public authorities,
including government ministries, are required to release 17 categories of government
information on a regular and updated basis. These
categories include an index of documents and records held by the relevant authority,
decision-making procedures, instructions, manuals, records, budgets and salaries,
as well as information about concessions, permits and/or authorizations issued,
among other information. The
legislation also requires public authorities to provide reasons for decisions,
and to publish “all relevant facts while formulating important policies
or announcing the decisions which affect public [sic].”
In addition, the legislation specifies that proactive disclosure is intended
to be the primary method of information dissemination by the government, with
access requests to be used only as a last resort:
(2) It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to
take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section
(I) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at
regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet,
so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.
The Act requires that the dissemination be in a format easily accessible to
the public, but allows public officials discretion to choose a format based on
cost effectiveness, local language, and the most appropriate form of dissemination
in a given region.
However, compliance with proactive disclosure requirements is not yet very
high – according to a study by the Right to Information Assessment and Analysis
Group, an independent non-governmental organization (NGO), the majority
of Indian government ministries appear to be reporting only approximately 30%
of the information required to be disclosed under the law.
However, the availability of new technologies for online disclosure may help
to facilitate compliance. The Act requires that public authorities organize and
index their records in computerized format so as to facilitate proactive disclosure. Various
government ministries disseminate information through their individual websites
and other outlets, and
an online government directory of these websites and lists of policies and budget
plans are also available.
The Indian government also has a searchable public database of documents and
reports published by several levels of government, available online through the
National Portal of India. This
database was created as a collaborative effort under a national “E-Governance
Plan” by various government ministries at the central, state and district
levels, and is run by the central government’s National Information Centre.
The documents in it, which date mainly from 2000 onwards and number over 6,000, can
be searched by level of government, ministry, type, and/or keyword. The categories
of documents available include policy documents, annual reports, guidelines,
census information, statistics, plan documents, report surveys, and circulars/office
the compilation appears to take place on a voluntary basis, and is
not complete or comprehensive for any of the government entities listed. The
portal includes a feature on “Recently Added Documents,” divided by relevant
state or ministry.
The government of India also runs a major leading publication shop, which
produces books and journals on a wide variety of cultural and scientific topics
of general interest, ranging from Indian literature to geography. Monthly
indexes of its new publications are available online through the National
Portal of India.
The department responsible for administering the Right to Information
Act 2005 in India is the national Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances
and Pensions. Oversight
and enforcement are the responsibility of the Central Information Commission, which
held an October 2009 conference that included presentations on the low rates
of compliance with the proactive disclosure requirements in the Act. One presentation
noted in particular the difficulties posed by the lack of a culture of transparency,
by computer illiteracy among government employees and by technical problems related
to centralization of web updates. The presenter, who was one of India’s current
panel of nine Information Commissioners, recommended more extensive technological
training and a “default” government culture of disclosure as part of the solution.
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]