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Freedom of Information Qualitative Research Essay


Introduction

The rate, at which change is taking place in society, as well as the challenges posed by the digital era, forces any government to employ new strategies in order to realize its existing strategies. Based on this, development of strong leadership strategies, instituting strong governance and embracing the culture of professionalism as regards to knowledge and information handling, is critical if the government wishes to accomplish its missions.

This essay aims to evaluate the importance of freedom of information in government. It analyzes the effectiveness of information sharing within three domains: among government agencies, between the government and the public and between the private sector and the public sector.

Firstly, the major aims or objectives of freedom of information will be presented, followed by a discussion on the reaction of the government regarding free information flow. The third chapter explores the new systems of openness, whereby the government has been forced to accept information sharing.

The last chapter offers a succinct conclusion, whereby it is reiterated that information sharing plays a critical role in boosting the security and the economy of the country.

Major Aims of FOI

Aims of Policy Makers

One of the aims of policy makers is to develop the value of information and data that is within the public domain (Dawes 2010, p. 379). Information and knowledge found at various levels serve different purposes, hence the policy makers ought to improve them in an attempt to utilize them in the most suitable way.

The availability of such knowledge and information benefits members of the public in a number of ways because it empowers them to take up their roles as citizens. This in turn would affect the economy and bolster the performance of the government. Improved information and knowledge handling enable policy makers to develop evidence-based policies, implying they would engage in research before designing new policies.

Thus, policy makers have the opportunity of evaluating the results of the existing policy by means of information sharing process. It should be noted that efficient utilization of information, namely in decision-making, encourages the drafting of strong policies and superior service delivery (Cartwright-Hignett & Carter-Silk 2011, p. 31).

Studies show that sharing information with the right people at the right time facilitates better value and more adaptive service deliverance, since it reduces doubling-up of roles and the chance for error (Cartwright-Hignett & Carter-Silk 2011, p. 33). Furthermore, improving the value of information enables personalization of services and utilization of customer knowledge (Cartwright-Hignett & Carter-Silk 2011, p. 35).

Another aim of policy makers would be to develop a knowledge handling and sharing culture, which would disseminate the power of the information within the public domain (Birkinshaw 2010, p. 314). Previously, policy makers were simply concerned with improving information handling techniques, but not information sharing skills.

The government should share information with relevant partners and individuals more securely, to enable it in achieving its goals. To do this a modification of culture is required, particularly in the civil sector. For the policy makers to manage knowledge effectively, they should utilize available information (Birkinshaw 2010, p. 318).

Strong leadership, productive culture, and the role of government officials are critical as far as development of information sharing culture is concerned (Birkinshaw 2010, p. 321).

For instance, in the private sector, adequate resources are channeled to behaviour development, which would further support the company needs of information-based reformation (Birkinshaw 2010, p. 325). The government would also need to employ a similar strategy in order to ensure that free flow of information is enhanced.

In 2007, the British Prime Minister noted that the 21st century is characterized by information flow hence the major role of the government would be to develop strategies that would help it compete favorably in the global economy. This entails devising some of the best information handling techniques in order to resolve global issues, such as cyber crime and terrorism (Goldberg 2009, p.52).

However, the underlying factor in the government’s ability to compete effectively was dependent upon how it used this information. In such modern times, information determines the development of the economy since it is the force driving democracy (Staples 2004, p. 14).

Each sector of the economy, irrespective of whether it is public or private, needs information and knowledge in order to create value In short, the future of any society depends on information handling; which implies if governments share information appropriately, there is a high likelihood in achieving its objectives.

The overall success of future governments is therefore dictated by the capacity to develop policies based on the available information.New information and knowledge should always be used to create value and deal with the challenges that the digital era presents. With the new information age, the safety of the public, sustainability of programs and the privacy of various agencies are all at stake (Escaleras, Lin & Register 2010, p. 450).

If the government aspires to manage and share information with members of the public, it would improve the lives of the majority, as well as the welfare of society. This would in turn, contribute significantly to their country’s economic development (Escaleras, Lin & Register 2010, p. 456).

Aims of Government

The major aims of the government regarding freedom of information would be to utilize general principles and secure processes to manage critical information. This government struggles considerably in presenting information as paper format, particularly during this modern digital era. Consequently, the government cannot neglect these new changes and must employ new strategies.

Application of general standards, the use of uniform formats, and the application of standard language ensures the government will monitor the information flow since new strategies allow consistency in terms of acquisition and distribution of information (Barstow 2010, p. 809). New strategies would perhaps allow the government to implement quality assurance processes as well as accuracy.

This would guarantee legality and consistency in the handling of information systems. Since the new laws compel the government to allow openness and transparency in information handling and sharing, utilization of good information handling processes, such as information appraisal, would encourage cost-effective conformity to the law (Barstow 2010, p. 812).

Through information sharing, the departments of government would benefit, as they would be informing each other on what is taking place in the public. One should also note however, that although the government has a primary goal on sharing information, the privacy of agencies and individuals is constantly considered.

An additional aim of the government is to build capability regarding information sharing. This is based on the necessity for governmental employees to utilise this information to execute their duties. This is contrary to the traditional society, whereby only professionals need information due to their career (Abbot & Marohasy 2010, p. 6).

The government utilizes information in order to improve accountability, by which senior leaders within every agency or department is expected to share critical information with members of staff, as well as other stakeholders. Involvement of other groups in information circulation is critical since they are usually charged with the task of creating, storing, and accessing them when necessary.

For example, government librarians, archivists, and freedom of Information (FOI) managers must always be given information since they would modify such information to suit a required purpose (Abbot & Marohasy 2010, p. 9).

Governmental Response

The Idea of Thirty Year Rule

In the United Kingdom, as well as other countries such as the Republic of Ireland and Australia, the concept of withholding information from the public has generally been applied. In the UK, this rule was enacted in 1958 under the Public Records Act, stating that public records (apart from that already in circulation) are only accessible to the public after a specified period of fifty years.

This rule was altered in 1967, from fifty to thirty years. Moreover, the Lord Chancellor had additional powers to withhold any information that was considered critical to the operation or functioning of the government (Brooke 2006, p. 62).

Unlike in modern society, information was transferred directly from the department of government to the agency responsible for keeping records, more commonly referred to as the Public Record Office. This office is still in existence, now known as The National Archives.

One of the fundamental objectives behind withholding governmental information was to safeguard national security. Sensitive information could derail the operations of the government and could be used to destabilise the country’s infrastructure.

The thirty-year rule was abandoned in 2000 with the formulation of another policy referred to as the Freedom of Information, which was in full operation in 2005. The policy was formulated specifically to counter allegations of the previous policies regarding information circulation, by demonstrating that the government was willing to share information with the members of public to a certain extent.

The new policy gave citizens a constitutional right to demand for information from the government whenever such information was deemed necessary (Guy & Oberlin 2009, p. 349). This meant a citizen would not necessarily have to wait for thirty years before requesting the government to share information with the public.

In addition, the process transferring all government records to The National Archives remained in order to maintain the safeguarding of public information for future use.The previous constitutional dispensation specified that information could not be directly accessed once it was deposited and the government reserved the right of access once it reaches The National Archives office.

On the contrary, since the enactment of the new law, members of the public are entitled to access this information freely (MacDonald 2003, p.42).

Furthermore, all records of recent events and public proceedings should be given to the public through the media and for critical information, such as cabinet papers, a commission of inquiry suggested that the period by which people should access such information, should be reduced from thirty years at least fifteen years (MacDonald 2003, p.45).

Before the institution of the new law, the commissions of inquiry established that the government had to redefine its role and scope as far as public communication was concerned (Petersen 1992, p. 448). It was reported that public servants were yet to come to terms with the new changes brought about by the digital era (Petersen 1992, p. 452).

One major recommendation was that the government had to redefine its position regarding information sharing, by allowing continuous discussions with all affected parties, particularly stakeholders, in policy formulation (Petersen 1992, p. 455). Thus, the government has to be responsive to the demands of the majority and allow free access to information and knowledge (Petersen 1992, p. 456).

Extension of FOI into the New Governance

The new law on the freedom of information states that the government should be open. This implies that secrecy should be eliminated in order to pave way for information sharing in the public sector. Public servants are expected to display any needed information to the members of public when needed or requested.

When releasing information to the media, such messages should be unmediated and direct, since public officials have a tendency of editing information before releasing to the public (Staples 2004, p. 45).

If it is indeed the goal of a government to establish a good relationship with the public, they should engage genuinely in regards to information sharing, which should not be given a second thought. Some public officials tend to present misleading information whenever presenting public policies and reading out governmental achievements.

Staples (2004, p. 57) believed that this system should be restructured, whereby public officials ought to employ a number of relevant communication channels whenever presenting information. Genuine presentation of information would prevent conflicts, particularly if two closely related governmental departments give contradictory information regarding an issue.

Therefore, maintaining transparency when sharing information with the public, the public servants would be avoiding conflicts with other members of society, particularly politicians. Moreover, it encourages civil servants to employ the spirit of political neutrality.

The government has moved on to restructure various governmental agencies that are responsible for information circulation. For instance, the new permanent secretary in charge of communications is now the head of profession. The permanent secretary is assigned with the responsibility for handling governmental information and providing strategic leadership to all government communications.

Whenever the secretary feels that a new communication agency is needed in government, he has the constitutional right to advise the government to set up one such agency. It is therefore evident to see how vital this role is for national and international relations. Even the senior most communication officer in charge of the handling information in the premier’s office will be reporting to the permanent secretary.

This would illustrate the level of commitment from the side of the government. Even though the government has restructured its core communication infrastructure to incorporate the new law, some inconsistencies between departments exist.

An example if this is due to the implementation of new roles; this has led to confusion among junior officers on who their official line manager is (Benedek, Bauer &Kettemann 2008, p. 89).

Thus, for the law to be integrated into government operations the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS) should be disbanded and the permanent secretary in charge of government communication should assume responsibility over the GICS existing responsibilities.

New systems of openness

New systems forced upon governments, such as Wikileaks

The UK government has previously been accused of lacking openness because information was highly guarded (Klang & Murray 2005, p. 5). Members of the public could only access information that was deemed as safe in public quarters.

However, in modern society, the government needs to be transparent and open with information to gain public support. Unfortunately, the government has been compelled to accept and embrace some new systems of information circulation, which in turn force them to share information with the public.

An example of this is wikileaks.org, which has contributed in revolutionising global information distribution by releasing information to the public without governmental consent.

For instance, the organization embarked on the campaign that saw it release diplomatic information that referred to the British government (Klang & Murray 2005, p. 12), as well as revealing the relationship and secret foreign policies of the UK government towards countries in Africa and Asia.

The government has frequently complained that its sovereignty is interfered with by such organizations as wikileaks, because this new form of information sharing pose serious challenges to various governments since they discourage policy makers from making secret deals with foreigners.

The ‘open data’ initiative

The idea of open data suggests that certain forms of information should be available to members of the public for free use, without disturbances from patent enforcement organizations and copyright (Mazhar 2010, p. 206). Through open data initiatives, members of the public would access adequate information without problems.

Consumers would access information regarding the operations of the government and the government would know which services are needed in the public. The UK government is one of the governments in the world, which have already embraced technology using open data systems (Mazhar 2010, p. 214).

Negative governmental consequences to FOI

The government has always believed that it has a monopoly over information, (particularly that which is considered as sensitive information) mainly because it has the role of maintaining national and public security. Information can bread violence because members of the public may interpret any information in a way that is unpleasant Kauppinen & Espindola 2011, p. 122).

By doing so, the government interferes with the freedom of information because members of the public would not receive any valuable data at the right time. In most occasions, the government prevents free flow of information to safeguard its interests.

New systems of information distribution, such as wikileaks, are under threat since the government is doing everything under its power to ensure that the organization does not circulate sensitive information to the public. If sensitive information reaches the hands of such organizations as wikileaks, the image of the government is always tainted since the information displayed is predominantly negative.

Apart from tainting the image of the government, information distributed through new systems would be used by adversaries to attack the government. Terrorism and distribution of weapons of mass destruction pose serious challenges to governments (Puddephatt 2005, p. 88). Any government would want to protect its military or diplomatic information since it could be used against it when it gets into the hands of extremists.

Conclusion

Information sharing serves a number of purposes; among them includes enlightening members of the public. It plays a critical role even in developed countries since it helps policy makers in drafting sound policies. In the United Kingdom, policy makers need it to strengthen their policy-making strategies, while the government would need it to improve service delivery.

The government of UK responded positively to this, by creating specific laws that pave the way for transparent and unobstructed information sharing. Regarding the extension of information sharing to governance, some policies need to be developed further in order to help in the process of full implementation.

The new systems of information sharing, such as, wikileaks, pose serious challenges to various governments because they release sensitive information that would interfere with national security, which is why the government is against such systems.

List of References

Abbot, J & Marohasy, J 2010, “Accessing environmental information relating to Climate Change: A Case Study Under UK Freedom of Information Legislation,” Environmental, Law And Management, Vol. 22, no. 1, pp 3-12.

Barstow, DT 2010, “The Freedom of Information Act and the Press: Obstruction or Transparency?” Social Research, Vol. 77, no. 3, pp 805-810.

Benedek, W, Bauer, V & Kettemann, M 2008, Internet Governance and the Information Society, Eleven International Publishing, New York.

Birkinshaw, P 2010, “Freedom of information and its impact in the United Kingdom,” Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 27, no. 4, pp 312-321.

Brooke, H 2006, Your Right To Know, Pluto Press, New York.

Cartwright-Hignett, C & Carter-Silk, A 2011, “BBC v Sugar: Freedom of Information Act 2000-A Cursory Glance at the Journalism Exception,” Entertainment Law Review, Vol. 22, no. 1, pp 34-36.

Dawes, SS 2010, “Stewardship and usefulness: Policy principles for information-based transparency,” Government Information Quarterly, Vol. 27, no. 4, pp 377-383.

Escaleras, M, Lin, S & Register, C 2010, “Freedom of information acts and public sector corruption,” Public Choice, Vol. 145, no. 3, pp 435-460.

Goldberg, D 2009, “Freedom of information in the 21st century: Bringing clarity to transparency,” Communications Law, Vol. 14, no. 2, pp 50-56.

Guy, M & Oberlin, M 2009, “Assessing the health of FOIA after 2000 through the lens of the National Security Archive and federal government audits,” Law Library Journal, Vol. 101, no. 3, pp 331-353.

Kauppinen, T & Espindola, GMD 2011, “Linked Open Science-Communicating, Sharing and Evaluating Data, Methods and Results for Executable Papers,” Procedia Computer Science, Vol. 4, no. 726, pp 112-125.

Klang, M & Murray, A 2005, Human Rights in the Digital Age, Routledge, London.

MacDonald, J 2003, The Law of Freedom of Information, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Coppel, A 2004, Information Rights, Sweet and Maxwell, London.

Mazhar S 2010, “Exclusion of Private Sector from Freedom of Information Laws: Implications from a Human Rights Perspective,” Journal of Alternative Perspectives on Social Sciences, Vol. 2, no. 1, pp 211-223.

Petersen, B 1992, “Copyright and State Government: An Analysis of Section 119.083, Florida’s Software Copyright Provision”, Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 20, no. 2, pp 441–486.

Puddephatt, A 2005, Freedom of Expression, The essentials of Human Rights, Hodder, Arnold

Staples, W 2004, Encyclopedia of privacy, Greenwood Publishing Group, London.

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