Thursday, 25 October 2012

What’s wrong with this picture? The case of access to information requests in two continental federal states – Germany and Switzerland

an article by Sarah Holsen (Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration, Lausanne) published in Public Policy and Administration Volume 27 Number 4 (October 2012)


More than 80 access to information (ATI) laws exist worldwide. Their primary objectives are to increase transparency and accountability in government. Given the similarity in the components of ATI laws across countries, one could expect per capita usage of the laws to be roughly similar.

However, comparing the number of requests in seven countries, we found that far fewer requests are being made in Switzerland and Germany than in Canada, Ireland, Mexico, India, and the UK and that, in contrast to these five, the number is not increasing.

Drawing on 28 semi-structured interviews with experts on the Swiss Law on Transparency (LTrans) and German FOI Law (IFG), we offer three primary explanations for the low use of the laws.

The first is that few people are aware of the law in either country as a consequence of little promotion of the laws.

The second is that people might have more interest in information held at the state or local level than at the federal level.

The third is that other avenues to information in Switzerland reduce interest in using the LTrans and a culture of “amtsgeheimnis”, or official secrecy, in Germany inhibits the administration from willingly disclosing information.

We examine these hypotheses against the situation in the UK, where awareness of the FOI law is known to be high and the number of requests is high and has been on the rise for the past four years.

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