Monday, March 7, 2011

Evaluating FOI 2.0 performance - some initial thoughts

Nick Howard Student Administrative Law 204 and Comparative Administrative Law 609 UTAS 2010

As part of my undergraduate degree in law at the University of Tasmania, I took Associate Professor Rick

Snell's unit in comparative administrative law. In consultation with Rick, I wrote two essays concerning the new Right to Information laws in Australia. In particular, I researched as to how best the new FoI 2.0 regime could be evaluated. This proved to be a challenging task.

In the past it has been easier to evaluate Australian FoI through, inter alia, comparative analysis. Moreover, comparative criteria such as information polity, asymmetry and compliance analysis have proved, for the most part, useful. However, I have argued that with the advent of FoI 2.0, these criteria are no longer a viable and effective mechanism for evaluation.

One of the key concerns with a 2.0 system is that there is nothing in place to safeguard the citizenry from the dumping of unordered, unstructured and superfluous information on government websites, in order to comply with Right to Information legislation. How is the citizenry to know whether or not what is broadcast by the government is quality information in the public interest? In addition, as suggested by Professor Alsadair Roberts in Blacked Out, there is also a problem of supply and demand. How are governments to tell how many people want the information and what exactly to supply? There is a possible solution.

In Wiki Democracy: How technology can make government better, democracy stronger, and citizens more powerful, Professor Beth Simone Noveck coined a revolutionary idea: ordinary people through open source technology could make government decision-making more expert and more democratic.[1] For Professor Noveck this is in the context of patents. Moreover, she argued that the public could assist in patent examination and 'collaborating groups of dedicated volunteers [could] help decide whether a particular patent should be granted'.[2] This thesis could be modified and in turn employed as a mechanism for the evaluation of a 2.0 system.

A website could be created for the purpose of public collaboration. Thereon, the citizenry could post comments on and rate disclosed information pertaining to its comprehensiveness; usability; accessibility; and comprehensibility, for example. This would provide feedback for government departments and in turn improve the quality of the proactively released information. Consequently, these comments and ratings could be used in comparative analysis between two countries, for example Australia and New Zealand, to thus evaluate an FOI 2.0 regime.

Rick Snell

After our discussions in Law 609 Nick and I continued to mull over this issue of trying to evaluate FOI 2.0 regimes. In part our thinking was influenced by the approach adopted in the Tasmanian Discussion Paper on FOI Strengthening Trust in Government: Everyone's Right to Know 2009 at page 12 that divided information into 4 categories that subsequently were incorporated in Section 12 of the Right to Information Act 2009 (Tas):

  • Required disclosures
  • Routine disclosures
  • Active disclosures
  • Assessed disclosures

These were defined in the Discussion Paper as:

Required Disclosure; that is the disclosures required by law or enforceable under an agreement, for instance annual reports, the Report on Government Services etc.

Routine Disclosure; that is the voluntary publishing of Government Information of interest to the public, for example the Department of Health and Human Services Health Progress Chart and the Department of Education Schools Improvement Report.

Active Disclosure; that is the voluntary release of information upon request. This includes the release of information which holds no broad public interest, but there is no public detriment in providing the information on request. A large amount of information is released on a day to day basis because someone makes a request and agencies disclose it without reference to FoI.

Assessed Disclosure; that is the release of information after it has been assessed against defined limitations, the onus is on release unless an agency can prove that the release would be detrimental to the public interest.

The idea has been to create a system that integrates the traditional FOI 1.0 approach into an integrated information management system geared towards increasing the availability of timely high quality information to citizens.

Yet few mechanisms, or much attention, has been devoted to evaluating whether this is taking place. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has put out a discussion paper about information principles ( but as Peter Timmins points out it is silent on how agencies establish their performance on achieving improved information access other than crude quantity measures (see

Currently, at UTAS and in collaboration with Dr Rhonda Breit from the School of Journalism at University of Queensland, we are looking at ways of utilizing the ideas of Beth Noveck and the initial work by Nick Howard to start this type of assessment.

One of my volunteers, Kat Burela, has developed an audit template to evaluate the ease of accessing information about the Right to Information Act on Tasmanian Government web sites.

We will ask reviewers to evaluate various Tasmanian government web sites in terms of accessibility of their information about Right to Information. The following categories have been used:

The access point discloses the link provided, and the number of subsequent links required gaining information (in the form of text, file or FAQs).

The target audience depicts the type of information provided (whether to inform the public of their rights or the departments of their duties and obligations.

The overall ranking each site has received is a personal ranking given against a prepared questionnaire.

Type of content

Accessibility of content

Search Option

We are developing a SurveyMonkey survey which will allow volunteers to both rank/audit the government web sites (in terms of FOI) and the survey mechanism we have developed.

We will then move onto the more difficult task of trying to evaluate whether post Right to Information there has been a qualitative information improvement in availability of government information.

[1] B Noveck, ‘Wiki-Government – how open source technology can make government deicison-making more expert and more democratic’, accessed at < >.

[2] Ibid.

1 comment:

Mark Tatchell said...

I wonder whether an evaluation scheme should consider whether the information disclosed is used to support citizen participation and collaboration. As I read Noveck, transparency is not the end state for open information and data, but a necessary condition to reap the benefits of participation and collaboration.