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Freedom of information in the U.K., U.S., and Canada: freedom of information (FOI) laws are becoming more prevalent throughout the world. But they are only as effective as the systems that support them.

The following article is based on a research report written for the ARMA International Educational Foundation in 2006. The complete report may be downloaded free at

Over the past two decades, the number of freedom of information (FOI FOI Freedom Of Information
FOI Totalförsvarets Forskningsinstitut (Swedish Defence Research Agency)
FOI The Swedish Defence Research Agency
FOI Field of Interest
FOI Full of It
FOI Fruit of Islam
) laws has grown from nine to 68, and they are continuing to be passed by more and more countries around the world. The legislation is often touted by campaigners and other supporters as a window into government and by government administrations as proof of their commitment to transparency and accountability. How FOI works in practice, however, is often far from the ideal envisioned by either group.

Federal FOI laws can look very different, depending on where they are implemented and practiced. In three countries--Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States--federal legislation was enacted at three distinct periods of FOI's evolution, yet the governments face common challenges and issues regarding their respective laws.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) A U.S. government rule that states that public information shall be delivered within 10 days of request. ), which originally passed in 1966 and has been amended four times, has given the rest of the world 40 years of experience on which to draw when writing and implementing their FOI laws. Canada, which passed its Access to Information Act (ATIA ATIA Assistive Technology Industry Association
ATIA Alaska Travel Industry Association
ATIA Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta
ATIA Army Training Information Architecture (US DoD) 
) in 1982, can take credit for a carefully structured act that has incorporated most of the key points necessary for good FOI legislation. The U.K.'s FOI Act 2000, to which 100,000 U.K. public authorities are subject, is the most recently passed law, having been fully implemented in 2005.

The Right to Access

FOI legislation works by conferring to the public the legal right to ask for and receive information held by public bodies. Enforceability is what sets FOI laws apart from general pledges of access to information made by governments. In the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. , the FOIA is enforceable in court, whereas Canada and the United Kingdom have established information commissioners to ensure compliance with their acts, backed by court action in Canada's case. However, though unused, both Canada and the United Kingdom incorporated a "government veto" into their legislation--a somewhat tentative commitment to FOI when compared to the U.S. legislation.

FOI legislation qualifies the right of access by defining a series of issues, or exemptions, for which the right is not valid. Exemptions are the key section of any FOI legislation because their breadth and depth determine how much information is actually disclosed. The practice of exempting information from disclosure to protect essential functions of government is consistent across all countries' FOI regimes. Common exemptions cover information that is related to national defense, international relations international relations, study of the relations among states and other political and economic units in the international system. Particular areas of study within the field of international relations include diplomacy and diplomatic history, international law, , and law enforcement, as well as information provided in confidence, personal information, and policy advice. There are few significant differences in the scope of the exemptions in the U.S., Canadian, and U.K. acts.

An obvious yet important potential exemption relates to the requester: Does the law give the right of access to anyone or only to that country's citizens? FOI laws in the United States and the United Kingdom allow anyone to make a request, while the Canadian ATIA applies only to Canadian citizens or permanent residents. A recent change in the United States via the Intelligence Authorization Act The United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Intelligence Authorization Act was implemented in order to enforce an article of the Constitution which has not been followed since Washington’s presidency.  for Fiscal Year 2004 prohibits intelligence agencies from complying with requests from foreign governments, their representatives, or intergovernmental in·ter·gov·ern·men·tal  
Being or occurring between two or more governments or divisions of a government.


In terms of numbers, FOI is actually used by only a minute portion of the population. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, fewer than 1 percent of the population in each country has made an FOI request. However, in terms of sheer numbers, far more people file FOI requests with the U.S. government than with the U.K. or Canadian governments. For example, the U.S. government received 2.6 million FOI requests in 2005 compared to Canada's 25,207 and the U.K.'s 38,108. The most frequent categories of requesters are private citizens, the media, and businesses.

Implementing FOI Laws

When deciding whether to pass an FOI law or how to implement one, government officials and politicians often fail to think carefully about the practicalities of putting the law into practice. For example, few seriously consider how the law will affect the jobs of civil servants and other government employees or, conversely con·verse 1  
intr.v. con·versed, con·vers·ing, con·vers·es
1. To engage in a spoken exchange of thoughts, ideas, or feelings; talk. See Synonyms at speak.

, how the staff's abilities and attitudes will affect the success of the law's implementation. Yet those who answer requests and respond to complaints are the key players in the FOI implementation process. Along with FOI officers, records managers play a large role in ensuring that that implementation goes smoothly.

Several areas of FOI implementation are worth examining to understand the complexity of dealing with the legislation. The main ones to consider are:

* FOI response process/system

* Costs of compliance

* Time spent processing requests and backlogs

* FOI training and awareness for public authorities

* Senior management's role

* Recordkeeping as key to FOI's Success

Those who are not prepared face many challenges as they scramble To encode (encrypt) data in order to make it indecipherable without having a secret key to "unlock" it. The term came from the early days of cryptography which camouflaged analog transmissions with secret frequency patterns.  to organize the information being requested.

Responding to FOI Requests

The logistical lo·gis·tic   also lo·gis·ti·cal
1. Of or relating to symbolic logic.

2. Of or relating to logistics.

[Medieval Latin logisticus, of calculation
 complexity of the FOI request response process is influenced by the nature of the tracking system as well as the type of the request. The centralized cen·tral·ize  
v. cen·tral·ized, cen·tral·iz·ing, cen·tral·iz·es
1. To draw into or toward a center; consolidate.

 Canadian system allows all requests to be fed into one database, which is used by most departments and agencies. The United Kingdom and the United States, however, do not have centralized systems In telecommunications, a centralized system is one in which most communications are routed through one or more major central hubs. Such a system allows certain functions to be concentrated in the system's hubs, freeing up resources in the peripheral units. ; nor do individual departments in those countries use common tracking software.

Another factor is whether departments respond to requests on a simple first-come, first-served “FCFS” redirects here. For the figure skating competition, see Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

This article is about a general service policy. For the technical concept, see FIFO.
 basis ("single track") or divide them into those that are simple (requiring minimal administrative effort) and those that are complex or voluminous ("multi-track"). The process becomes more complicated and unwieldy as more moving parts Moving parts are the components of a device that undergo continuous or frequent motion, most commonly rotation. "Parts" only include the mechanical components which does not include fuel, or any other gas or liquid.  lead to the involvement of more actors and increase the need for coordination.

Actors include those providing legal services legal services n. the work performed by a lawyer for a client.  or consultations with other departments, people at other levels of government, and foreign governments. If a request is refused and the requester is dissatisfied, additional actors can become involved in internal reviews (in both the United Kingdom and the United States), appeals to the information commissioner (in the United Kingdom and Canada), and appeals to a higher court (the U.K. information tribunal The Information Tribunal is a tribunal in the United Kingdom. It was established as the Data Protection Tribunal to hear appeals under the Data Protection Act 1984. Its name was changed to reflect its wider responsibilities under other freedom of information legislation, as , the Federal Court of Canada
''For the active Federal Courts, see Federal Court (Canada) and Federal Court of Appeal (Canada)
The Federal Court of Canada is a defunct national court of Canada set up to resolve some types of disputes arising under the central government's legislative

The precise cost of complying with FOI legislation in the three countries is virtually impossible to calculate. One reason for this is that some agencies keep track of costs while others do not; another reason is the wide variation in how the costs are calculated. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information and Privacy, the total cost of administering the U.S. FOIA in 2003 was just over 23 million. According to the government of Canada The Government of Canada is the federal government of Canada. The powers and structure of the federal government are set out in the Constitution of Canada.

In modern Canadian use, the term "government" (or "federal government") refers broadly to the cabinet of the day and
, its annual FOI cost is estimated to be around $30 million (Cdn.) or approximately $25 million in U.S. dollars. In the United Kingdom, an estimate after 18 months was 35 million [pounds sterling] per year (about $68 million U.S.). The cost, naturally, depends on the efficiency of the response procedures and, therefore, to the time dedicated to FOI compliance.

The statutory guidelines guidelines, a set of standards, criteria, or specifications to be used or followed in the performance of certain tasks.
 for time needed for compliance are broadly comparable across the three jurisdictions. The U.K.'s FOI act stipulates that the authority must comply "not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt." In the United States, "(once) an agency properly receives a FOIA request, it has twenty working days in which to make a determination on the request," according to the Department of Justice's May 2004

"Freedom of Information Act Guide." In Canada, the ATIA mandates that the response must be made "within thirty days after the request is received."

In each jurisdiction, however, these statutory response times are often not adhered to--for instance, delays are the most common reason for requester dissatisfaction in Britain and Canada--and response times are mixed in each jurisdiction. U.K. central government organizations' adherence to the time limit varied between 64 and 92 percent, according to one set of statistics from the "Freedom of Information--One Year On" report.

Comparable U.S. figures are hard to come by, owing to owing to
Because of; on account of: I couldn't attend, owing to illness.

owing to prepdebido a, por causa de 
 the decentralization de·cen·tral·ize  
v. de·cen·tral·ized, de·cen·tral·iz·ing, de·cen·tral·iz·es
1. To distribute the administrative functions or powers of (a central authority) among several local authorities.
 of the process and compilation of statistics, which do not include delay time. Under the Canadian legislation, a late response constitutes a "deemed refusal" and, after a marked decrease in the number of deemed refusals in 1999, the number is on the rise again: the lowest being 5.9 percent, the highest 60.1 percent (Citizenship and Immigration Canada The Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada is the department of the government of Canada with responsibility for issues dealing with immigration and citizenship. The department was established in 1994 following a reorganization within the federal government.  and Department of Foreign Affairs foreign affairs
Affairs concerning international relations and national interests in foreign countries.
 and International Trade respectively), according to the Information Commissioner of Canada's annual report for 2005-2006. In all three countries, delays typically lead to backlogs: 18 percent of requests in Canada are backlogged each year, while only 7.1 percent in the United States and 2.6 percent in the United Kingdom share the same fate.

Training and Support

One of the factors that can affect the efficiency with which FOI requests are processed is the amount of training FOI practitioners receive. In the United States, the Office of Information and Privacy (OIP OIP Office of International Programs
OIP Observatoire International des Prisons (France)
OIP Office of the Iraq Programme
OIP Office of Information and Privacy (US DOJ) 
) takes government FOI staff training seriously, recommending a year to learn the job. Training FOI practitioners in the United Kingdom is the responsibility of each government department. Levels of training in access work vary across departments in Canada, where it is usually sparse sparse - A sparse matrix (or vector, or array) is one in which most of the elements are zero. If storage space is more important than access speed, it may be preferable to store a sparse matrix as a list of (index, value) pairs or use some kind of hash scheme or associative memory. , voluntary as opposed to mandatory, and takes the form of voluntary information sessions. The importance of training, however, has been recognized, and recommendations are being considered to improve training, according to an ATIA Review Task Force report, "Constructing a Culture of Access in the Federal Public Service."

Support from senior management is also seen as crucial for successful implementation, not only with regard to training, but also the effect of management's attitudes toward the work. The direct involvement of managers in access work and sensitivity toward employees' time constraints In law, time constraints are placed on certain actions and filings in the interest of speedy justice, and additionally to prevent the evasion of the ends of justice by waiting until a matter is moot.  can do much to facilitate access work as well as to boost morale. Senior management has been reproached in each jurisdiction, however, for its lack of support. Senior managers in the United States are said to pay little attention to FOI, while their Canadian counterparts are too reactive, showing interest only in specific issues and files, according to an ATIA Review Task Force report from Canadian training firm Yvon Gauthier Info-Training Inc. This has also been identified as a problem in local authorities in the United Kingdom.

The Role of Recordkeeping

The importance of recordkeeping has been flagged with the implementation of FOI legislation. Recordkeeping appears to have risen toward the top of the agenda since FOIA 2000 was passed in the United Kingdom. According to a report, "Freedom of Information Act 2000: The First Six Months," 34 percent of local authorities in England surveyed in 2005 felt that FOI had had a positive impact on records management, with issues being recognized and progressed.

Twenty-seven percent of public authorities surveyed by the U.K. Information Commissioner in a January 2006 survey stated that they believed recordkeeping had improved, and 57 percent of these thought their filing system was likely to change within the next year to comply with FOIA 2000.

Scope for authorities to use specialized software has also been identified. In the United States, E-FOIA E-FOIA Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996  is thought to have had a beneficial effect on database quality, but information records management expertise is still being deployed on authorities' databases. In Canada, the quality of filing systems has been flagged and, despite confusion over the definition of a "record," recommendations have been made for explicit guidelines in this respect.

In the end, FOI laws are only as good as the systems that underpin them. Staffs have to learn to deal with the demands of compliance and a new decision-making process. Efficient and effective procedures for creating, managing, disposing of, and archiving documents and records are key to their success. Obviously, if a government employee cannot find information when asked for it, he/she cannot evaluate it, make the decision on whether to release it, make necessary redactions, or relay it to the requester within the legislation's statutory time limit. Without good records management, FOI simply does not work.

At the Core

This article

* Compares and contrasts federal FOI laws in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States

* Examines the costs of compliance, as well as the response rates, in each country

* Discusses the importance of recordkeeping to FOI laws


Amos, Jim and Sarah Holsen. "Freedom of Information Act 2000: The First Six Months. The experience of local authorities in England." Improvement and Development Agency: London, 2005. Available at (accessed 5 April 2007).

Government of Canada. "Access to Information Act." Available at en/a-1/(accessed 8 March 2007).

Government of Canada, Access to Information Review Task Force. "Freedom of Information: Making it Work for Canadians." Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada Public Works and Government Services Canada, also referred to as Department of Public Works and Government Services, is the department of the government of Canada with responsibility for the government's internal servicing and administration. , 2002. Available at reportl-e.html#table (accessed 5 April 2007)

Hazell, Robert. "Commentary on Draft Freedom of Information Bill." London: The Constitution Unit, 1999.

House of Commons House of Commons: see Parliament.  Constitution Affairs Committee. "Freedom of Information: One Year On." London: The Stationery Office Limited, 2006. Available at (accessed 5 April 2007).

Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada The Information Commissioner of Canada is an independent ombudsman appointed by the Parliament of Canada who investigates complaints from people who believe they have been denied rights provided under Canada's Access to Information Act. . "Annual Report 2005-2006." Ottawa: Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada, 2006. Available at reports/2005-2006-e.asp (accessed 5 April 2007)

Symons, Gladys L. "Report 10--Access to Information Review Task Force: Constructing a Culture of Access in the Federal Public Service." Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2002. Available at paper-culture2-e.html#culture (accessed 8 March 2007).

U.K. Parliament. "Freedom of Information Act 2000." London: Queen's Printer The Queen's Printer (or King's Printer when the monarch is male) is a position defined by letters patent under the royal prerogative in the United Kingdom. The holder of the letters patent has the nearly exclusive right of printing, publishing and importing the King James  of Acts of Parliament, 2000. Available at (accessed 5 April 2007).

U.S. Department of Justice. "Freedom of Information Act Guide May 2004." Washington: Government Printing Office, 2004. Available at (accessed 8 March 2007).

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Information and Privacy. "Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2003." Available at (accessed 5 April 2007)

Yvon Gauthier Inc. "Report 22--Access to Information Review Task Force: Access to Information Review Survey of ATI (ATI Technologies Inc., Markham Ontario, A leading manufacturer of graphics chips and display adapters. Founded in 1985 by K. Y. Ho, Benny Lau and Lee Lau, ATI chips and boards are widely used by OEMs.  Units." Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2002. Available at (accessed 8 March 2007).

Sarah Holsen, MPA MPA

medroxyprogesterone acetate.
, MLAS MLAS Multiple Link Antenna System
MLAS My Lips Are Sealed
MLAS Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron
MLAS Machine Learning and Applied Statistics
, is a research fellow at the Constitution Unit in the Department of Political Science at University College London “UCL” redirects here. For other uses, see UCL (disambiguation).
University College London, commonly known as UCL, is the oldest multi-faculty constituent college of the University of London, one of the two original founding colleges, and the first British
. She is currently leading a 27-month funded evaluation of the United Kingdom's FOI Act 2000. She may be contacted at
COPYRIGHT 2007 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:GovernmentInsight
Author:Holsen, Sarah
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:May 1, 2007
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