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Further Findings – #07.

Disclosure policies not living up to FOI best practice
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Three indicators are used in the ATI for measuring organisations’ overall commitment to aid transparency, including one assessing the quality of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.

This has always been a heavily weighted indicator in the Index in recognition of the importance of proactive disclosure of information. For more on this, read our aid transparency principles, particularly principle 1.

Multilateral donors, international finance institutions (IFIs) and private foundations are not subject to national FOI legislation, which means a disclosure or transparency policy is important for setting out their overall approach to access to information. The ATI ranks 14 organisations which fall into this category, and only one – UN OCHA – is yet to publish a disclosure policy. Of the remaining 13 assessed in 2014, none were awarded the maximum score.

Organisations’ disclosure policies are assessed using a simplified methodology based on the Global Right to Information Rating. It uses three criteria:

    1. Presumption of disclosure;
    2. The limitations on accessing information; and
    3. The existence of an independent appeals process.

Having reviewed the 13 policies together, its notable how much they vary.

  • All 13 policies assessed contain a presumption of disclosure. This needs to be a specific clause that states disclosure as the rule, thereby requiring a compelling reason for non-disclosure.
  • Limitations on accessing information are less clear, with 11 policies assessed as having clearly defined limitations on internal deliberations and access to commercially sensitive or third party information. However, these exceptions were subject to a public interest override in only five organisations and subject to harm testing in only three.
  • Only the EIB’s and UNDP’s policies allow exceptions to disclosure to be challenged on the basis of public interest and the benefit of disclosure outweighing the harm it could entail. In the other organisations only specific exceptions can be harm tested, or this right resides exclusively with executive management and is based only on the organisation’s interest.
  • Only four organisations have an independent appeals process that is led by a body of individuals that are fully independent from the organisation. These are the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the IFC. The remaining nine either have no appeals process, or the appeals body includes the organisation’s staff or does not allow all exceptions to be challenged.

So organisations may state that their aim is to provide high levels of access to information on their decisions and activities, but the specifics of what is made available and under what restrictions varies widely.

The opportunities for challenging organisation’s decisions are few and far between, and what can be challenged and how independent the appeals body is also varies. Some best practice is emerging however, with good examples on specifying what information is exempt, the compilation of independent panels and how to submit an appeal. Better collaboration between these organisations on sharing approaches could help reduce these anomalies and identify further best practice examples.

An assessment of 13 disclosure policies: