How much does your mayor spend on travel and dinners every year? How much does your region invest to prevent domestic violence? What is the percentage of young children vaccinated against polio in your area?
These are just some of the approximately 800 questions submitted by Italians to their governments between December 2016 and February 2017 using the country’s freedom of information (FOI) access law. Yet only 136 have been answered satisfactorily, according to our latest report, Ignoranza di Stato (State Ignorance). Some of the other requests were only partially answered, and some were rejected. Worse still, many were simply ignored.
Our organization, Diritto di Sapere (Right to Know), was one of 32 that supported the FOI law, which was adopted in May 2016 after two years of hard work and organizing. What our report shows, unfortunately, is that too many public officials in Italy are failing to uphold their end of the deal.
We believe that the right to access information held by public authorities is a fundamental human right. We also believe that when citizens have access to information on local, regional, and national authorities—when they can hold their governments accountable by exposing mismanagement and corruption—they’re more likely to fully participate in democracy. And that, we believe, helps protect other crucial rights and freedoms.
These are just some of the reasons why we supported the approval of an FOI law. But as we demonstrate in our report, the law is too weak and not properly enforced. The FOI mandates public authorities answer information requests within 30 days. But according to our research, seven out of ten questions received no answer or acknowledgement whatsoever. This is unacceptable.
The FOI law grants that there may be specific and exceptional circumstances in which it is in the public interest for information not to be disclosed. But even in these instances, the law requires authorities to explain why a request has been denied. In many instances, however, public authorities rejected requests without an explanation. And in those cases where they did offer an explanation, their reason was not valid under the FOI law.
For example, when a journalist asked a local health agency for the percentage of children vaccinated against specific diseases (such as polio or tetanus), the agency refused to answer, saying that the journalist failed to provide a reason for the inquiry. Yet the FOI law clearly states that a request for information does not need to be justified or explained. Simply put, the agency’s response in this case was illegal—yet it suffered no consequences.
Of course, we saw examples of effective implementation of the law, too. Some public institutions went above and beyond all expectations to answer an FOI request as quickly as possible with more information than requested.
This was the case with the University of Pavia. One student wanted to access the construction plans of a future underground library, as well as the correspondence between the university and the local authority on archaeology, fine arts, and landscape. The student received all the information requested and was reassured that the construction of the future library will not endanger the historic university campus.
This example shows that the FOI law does allow citizens to access information that public authorities were not able to disclose previously. But Italy now needs to give the law the means to be fully implemented.
The government can take several steps to ensure that the law is working as it should. First, it could better educate public officials about their legal obligations under the FOI law. Second, it could provide a means through which citizens could report requests that are ignored or whose answers are unreasonably delayed or inadequate. In both the United Kingdom and Croatia, for example, a commission for access to information serves this purpose. Finally, the Italian government could levy sanctions if recalcitrant public authorities continue to refuse to obey the law.
For their part, public authorities need to define clear and transparent procedures to manage information requests, and they need to make those procedures as transparent, accessible, and accountable as possible.
Ultimately, government authorities in Italy will not become more transparent unless citizens take responsibility and make use of their new right to access information held by public authorities. The FOI law is a necessary first step—but if the people of Italy are to get the kind of access to information that they deserve, the government and the citizenry will have to keep walking forward, together.