Category Archives: #Transparency

In the Media

The Institute picks interesting stories and news items every week from the worlds of art, culture and social study and presents them in the blog. This week the stories have been chosen by Taina Cooke.

A fairer year of 2015 – the new transparency law for oil, gas and mining companies

A miracle has happened! All the UK oil, gas and mining companies woke up on Monday with a newfound social conscience and thought that maybe they should exploit the developing countries a bit less. As a New Year’s resolution they have decided to end the shadiness of global trade and start publishing details of the payments they make to different governments across the world for access to natural resources. The 1st of January 2015 will mark the beginning of an era characterised by more trust, more transparency and less corruption!
Okay, the UK government might have helped them a bit. Or a lot, to be more precise. The Parliament, you see, passed a historic transparency law for oil, gas and mining companies which helps to fight poverty and corruption in resource-rich but poor countries. The new law brings hundreds of billions of pounds worth of taxes, licence fees and royalties available to public scrutiny making it more difficult for companies and governments to make shady deals behind closed doors. Companies failing to report truthfully and accurately could face criminal prosecution.

UK is the first EU member state to fulfill the requirements of the EU Accounting Directive by passing the transparency law. All 28 EU countries are required to implement the directive by July 2015 and Finland, alongside five other countries, has publicly committed to early adoption. Passage of the law in Europe sends a strong signal to the US and Canada too encouraging them to join the fight against corruption and the “resource curse”. Fingers crossed, in 2015 an increasing number of governments will help the oil, gas and mining companies to wake up their sleeping consciences and start acting in a more open, more honest and more responsible way.  

Labour’s plan to strip private schools’ tax privileges causes mayhem

The class war is back on. The Labour party and Tories are fiercely fighting over private schools’ tax privileges and the troublemaker at the frontline seems to be Labour’s Shadow Secretary of Education, Tristram Hunt. Or this is the picture painted for us by newspapers such as The Telegraph. In reality, Mr Hunt has acted on a concern raised by many: why do private schools receive tax reliefs based on their charity status when so many of them do so little to earn it?

Mr Hunt has announced that a Labour government would remove business rates relief worth £165m a year from private schools that were not doing enough to help neighbouring state schools. According to Mr Hunt, in order to justify their charitable status private schools should, for example, run more summer schools, sponsor academies and support teacher training. Several advocates of the current tax relief system, however, suggest that removing the reliefs would result in increased fees or severe cut backs on some areas.

Tristram Hunt, as you might have guessed already, comes from a wealthy background and is privately educated himself. He’s been criticised for threatening private schools and effectively trying to deny children the same privilege he enjoyed. On the other hand, having in-depth knowledge about the system in practise hardly invalidates the criticism made of it. Also, if Labour’s suggestion about the relief removal being equivalent to just over 2 per cent of the private school’s fee income is correct, there certainly is room for some well grounded cuts.  

Information Integrity: Lessons from Finland


James Lowry from the International Records Management Trust writes about his recent study trip to Finland and IRMT’s research on information integrity


The open government movement has stimulated an international discourse on information management and use. This can be seen in Open Government Partnership ‘national action plan’ provisions for the release of government information and the growth of citizen-focused open data projects. Questions are now being asked about the integrity of the government information that is being opened up. Where does it come from? How can we be sure it is authentic? How can we be sure it is accurate? How can we ensure that it is up to date?

The records management discipline has developed the technical knowledge and tools to protect the integrity of information, for instance through the management of contextual metadata and the long-term preservation of digital records. This expertise will become increasingly relevant to the open government movement, as information with integrity becomes an expectation.


Questions about the integrity of government information become all the more significant in countries where basic records management controls have not been instituted. The International Records Management Trust (IRMT) is a UK charity that is working to support developing countries in addressing records management challenges, to strengthen governments’ ability to deliver services and be accountable to citizens.


IRMT’s research has identified that the advances being made in northern Europe hold lessons for governments that wish to become more open while assuring citizens of the integrity of their records and data. For instance, Norway has created, through a combination of laws, standards and technology, an approach to openness built on information integrity. Norway has created an online portal through which users can view the metadata of government records and request access. Users can be assured of the reliability of the information they are accessing because standardised records systems have been used to protect the integrity of the records and data from their creation.


With support from the Finnish Institute in London, IRMT is studying the Government of Finland’s approach to digital records and data management and preservation. In January, we visited the National Archives of Finland to examine the laws, standards and systems that are being developed to ensure the capture and preservation of digital information with integrity so that it is available to decision-makers and citizens.


The National Archives of Finland has supported government agencies in defining Lifecycle Management Plans (eAMS) for their records. These plans define the management requirements for the lifecycle of all records created or received by agencies and managed in digital records management systems. Based on in-depth work process analysis, the eAMSs identify all record types and comprehensively set out the provisions for their management from creation or receipt to final disposition (destruction or transfer to the National Archives). The eAMSs are integrated into digital records management systems, in compliance with the SAHKE2 standard.


The National Archives introduced SAHKE2 in 2009 as a national standard for digital records management. It specifies the functionality that government systems must have to protect the integrity of digital records, and it standardises metadata to support interoperability and the consistent treatment of digital records throughout their life. Through the eAMSs and SAHKE2, the National Archives has created a framework for controlling the management of records that incorporates case and workflow management while ensuring the capture and preservation of records with integrity.


The records that have enduring value will eventually be transferred for permanent preservation in the National Archives’ VAPA digital repository. VAPA has been developed in line with international good practice in digital preservation, complying with the OAIS reference model and featuring a checking service to validate the authenticity of records. Records can be certified as authentic, and of great interest to users of open data, the datasets held in VAPA can also be certified as authentic. Users can access records and datasets held in VAPA, as well as digital surrogates and metadata for paper records, via the Astia interface.

Finland’s advances in digital information management seem a long way from the realities of records management in many lower resource countries, but if a means could be found to transfer Finland’s digital records management expertise, national archives in developing countries could begin to develop the capacity to manage and preserve the digital records that are already being created in their agencies. This would be a crucial step towards assuring information integrity as a basis for true transparency and accountability.

Recent trends in media regulation


 
Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the CAMRI/FACE workshop in London

Traditional broadcast media is facing financial challenges from both reduced public funds and the increased importance of the media, as well calls for public guidelines for regulation in the wake of Snowden-gate and the UK phone-hacking scandal. Last week Communications scholars from Finland and the UK held a workshop discussing the future of European public broadcasting as well as the prospects of increased public oversight. These changes have consequences for democratic society.

The financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures as well as increased digitisation has led to public discussion about the future funding of public broadcasts. In Finland the public broadcaster’s (YLE) future has secured through replacing the tv license fee with a progressive ‘media tax’ levied on on every citizen irrespective of whether they own a television or not . In Greece the state has taken another course of action and to shut down public television and radio altogether, with the hopes of reestablishing it as a more streamlined operation in the futur
Underpinning these discussion is the demise of traditional media consumption. Dr. Marko Ala-Fossi offers a gloomy assessment for the future of terrestrial television. He argues that the increased competition from internet-based media is threatening the position of television as the preeminent mode of electronic mass communication. For example, he notes that recently the ITU World Radio Conference in 2012 decided to allocate the 700Mhz band for mobile broadband in addition to to the initial 800Mhz, to the dismay of European broadcasters who are left with less space for terrestrial and digital television.
In fact, there are worries that the days of terrestrial television broadcasts are numbered with German commercial broadcasters ending their terrestrial channels in 2015. An issue that was raised in the workshop was the question whether we are moving towards a fee-paying model due to constraints on budget to maintain terrestrial infrastructure combined with competition from pay-TV competitors, such as Sky TV. Dr. Ala-Fossi suggests that there is a possibility that with the demise of terrestrial television may result in free-tv disappearing altogether.  In terms of the knowledge gap, as discussed in earlier blog posts, the rise of fee-paying broadcast model may increase the divide between those who can afford to pay satellite channels and those who cannot.
In addition to the possible consequences of the demise of terrestrial television is the question of how to ensure media plurality,especially after Hungary’s controversial introduction of their new media law that is feared to curb freedom of speech. This controversy over state intrusion has, according to Professor Steven Barnett, overshadowed concerns about media concentration in the private sphere. In particular, he notes that the Commission’s policy in this area, until recently, has been to leave plurality concerns to the level of member states themselves. Now there is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling for ensuring media plurality on the EU-level, however the 12, 000 signatures so far is a far cry for the one million required for the Commission to take action.
However, recent policy developments are fostering greater concentration in emerging technologies. Dr. Maria Michalis highlights the fact that EU’s telecommunications policy is undergoing a paradigm shift in which the need for innovation take primacy over other concerns, such as competitive markets and consumer welfare. She argues that this shift is likely to lead to more lenient regulations as well as the temporary toleration for monopolistic market structures in new technologies  in order to create European companies strong enough to challenge the American giants.
Lastly, Dr. Daniel Trottier highlights some unexpected developments in digital media surveillance. He argues that in addition to ‘top-down’ surveillance of social media à la NSA there are also instances of ‘bottom-up’ surveillance whereby citizen vigilantes ‘crowdsource’ information in order to police the web. An example he introduces is the case of a Canadian Facebook group that collected information from other Facebook users in order to identify rioters who took part in the Vancouver riots of 2011 following the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks in the the Stanley Cup. He  notes that some identified suspected rioters lost their jobs and scholarships.
Dr. Trottier’s research shows how top-down and bottom-up surveillance are using the same social media platforms. The Internet no longer offers the anonymity it may once had and there is the risk that citizens may have their personal information used against them, if not at the behest of state authorities, but also enthusiastic by fellow citizens.

In conclusion, the direction of media research is to see how policy-makers are to respond to some of the challenged emerging from the changes  in our media landscape. The emerging consensus, so far, is that the EU has not been effective in enacting laws that ensure media plurality in the interest of citizens, despite the European Parliament’s activity in this area.

Unintended consequences of government transparency – freedom of information and open data under scrutiny

 

Institute’s Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen writes about government transparency, open data and freedom of information

Finland has one of the oldest freedom of information (FOI) laws in the world and – like its Nordic counterparts – its government is frequently considered one of the best-functioning and less-corrupted. The spirit of Chydenius and Forskål has encouraged Finland to showcase itself as a frontrunner of government transparency and good governance. Since its inclusion to the European Union in 1995, the Nordic state has argued for greater transparency within the supranational body, and in 2011 the newly elected Finnish government made open data one of its principle objectives in its government programme. Earlier this year, Finland joined Open Government Partnership, a new intergovernmental project for more transparent and accountable societies.

This was the setup for an all-afternoon discussion event held at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi on 30 May. The event was organised by the Finnish Institute, Embassy of Finland, Center for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck University and the University of Helsinki.

The first part of the event comprised of a lecture by Dr Tero Erkkilä from the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki and a commentary from Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä has recently published a book “Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences” where he forms an argument on how the conceptual shift from publicity to openness and transparency has in fact lead to several paradoxes in terms of democratic accountability and accessibility of public sector information.

The second part consisted of a panel with Christopher Cook (Financial Times), Paul Gibbons (SOAS) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Local Government Association) sharing their views and answering questions on the topics of the event.

One of the outlining themes of Dr Erkkilä’s lecture was the gradual shift in discourse from publicity towards market-oriented transparency. In the 1970s freedom of information was perceived mostly in democratic terms, as a right to access governmental documents, whereas during the 1990s the government started to realise the market potential of public sector information and the efficiency-driven term transparency began to emerge.

This conceptual shift together with Finns’ high trust towards their government has lead to a one example of unintended consequences, that being the economic exploitation of information such as census data. When government started to see public sector information as an economic commodity and started to attach a price tag to data, citizens’ access to this information arguably became more restricted.

The consensus-driven political culture has arguably lead to another unintended consequence, that being the “grey area” of openness, where the relevant information is being circulated among the decision making elite, but where the information will not necessarily reach the general public.

Dr Worthy responded to the lecture by contrasting the long tradition of FOI in Finland with the secretive administrative culture of the UK. However, certain similar trends seem to emerge in both countries due to the digitisation of information and the evolving efficiency-driven discussion around the role of public sector and provision of public services.

The panel further strengthened the observation of increasingly efficiency-oriented transparency discourse. Dr Gesche Schmid pointed out that especially in the UK the recent open data agenda has foremost focused on saving public resources. Open data agenda started as a technology-driven initiative but later on has transformed into primarily a way to save public resources.

Another interesting argument concerned the usability of data. According to Christopher Cook, comment editor of Financial Times, much of the data that is released as open data is almost unusable for the journalists since the data is not designed for using. Instead, there are datasets that are released under license and that are designed for journalists’ purposes. National Pupil Database is a good example of a dataset that is restricted from the public use, but selected individuals have access to it under a strict license.

Paul Gibbons, the creator of FOIman blog, pointed out the increasing division between FOI and open data. It is argued that the goals of the open data agenda have less and less resemblance with the initial democratic goals of FOI. Moreover, some of the most senior figures in the British public policy have recently argued in favour of proactive release of open data to replace the reactive FOI. Prime Minister David Cameron has even argued that FOI is merely “furring up the arteries of government”.

Gibbons further highlighted the importance of records management. In fact, one unintended consequence of open data might be the undermining of records management profession. In order to ensure the good quality of data and to protect privacy, it is crucial to involve records management into open data processes, because in many places records management professionals possess the required legal knowledge and have enabled the everyday mechanics of good governance.

Of course, FOI is not the only tool for ensuring democratic accountability, but without it it is hard to contemplate any serious progression. Moreover, the question of transparency is not a zero-sum game: open data does not automatically undermine FOI, far from it. In fact, open data can be used in various innovative ways to improve the state of FOI. As Ben Worthy mentioned in his comment, interesting things will presumably happen where FOI, open data and citizen engagement interact and this is what we should further support.

Discussion event on 30 May 2013: Future of Freedom of Information? Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences

The Finnish Institute together with Embassy of Finland and Birkbeck University will host a discussion event on freedom of information and open data on Thursday 30 May at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi.

The event consists of two parts: we will start off with a talk by Dr Tero Erkkilä, assistant professor in the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki, followed by a comment from Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in politics at the Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä’s talk will be based on his new book “Government Transparency: Impacts and Unintended Consequences” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

In the second part, we will have a panel discussion with plenty of time for questions from the floor. Christopher Cook from the Financial Times, Paul Gibbons (Information Compliance Manager at SOAS & creator of the FoI Man blog) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Programme Manager at Local Government Association) have kindly agreed to join the panel.

The event is open for everyone interested, so feel free to share the invitation but please do RSVP to tiina.heinila(at)formin.fi in advance if you’d like to attend.

Date and time: Thursday 30 May 2013, 2pm-6pm
Location: Finnish ambassador’s residence, 14 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP

Programme: 
14.00-14.30    Registration
14.30-14.45     Introductions
14.45-15.15      Dr Tero Erkkilä
15.15-15.45      Dr Ben Worthy
15.45-16.00     Coffee
16.00-17.00    Panel and Q&A
17.00-18.00    Drinks and canapés

***

Transparency has recently become one of the defining concepts in public administration. Arguably transparency is now globally seen as a key part of democratic governance, and it has gained an increasingly significant status in debate over government and institutional design.

This event aims at identifying why and how transparency has become such a topical concept and how has it reacted with the rapid digital development. The main questions that will be asked are as follows:

  • What are the impacts of freedom of information and digital transparency?
  • What are the possible unintended consequences of transparency especially in performance management?
  • What is the state of government transparency in Finland and in the UK today?
  • What is the future of government transparency in an increasingly digital society?
  • How should the freedom of information law be amended in order to fully satisfy citizens’ right to information?

Post-industrialised societies have recently taken a form where many key infrastructures are increasingly based on digital data and where the friction in creating and disseminating information has rapidly vanished. The amount of information available has increased exponentially and the relationship between governments and citizens in this data society has arguably changed in terms of information creation and use.

In addition to the amount of information, also the diversity of information types has increased exponentially. In the digital age information can refer to anything from genes to geodata and from literature to source code. The questions of fair access to information and universal right to use information are topical societal challenges that remain unsolved. Moreover, research results indicate towards a vast economic potential in the free reuse of public sector information.

One of the key questions for contemporary information societies, however, is to distinguish between open data’s potential for growth and innovation in one hand, and for democracy in the other. What also needs to be addressed is the potential risk of undermining freedom of information if open data policies prematurely replace reactive freedom of information laws. We need to be aware of the potential ambiguity of government transparency: does increased “transparency” in fact increase democratic accountability or merely administrative efficiency.

The event is targeted at a high-level audience consisting of policy-makers, journalists, civil servants, academics and public policy enthusiasts.

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