Are governments with stronger FOI laws also more corrupt? A new study challenges “good government” assumptions.

Does a well-enforced freedom-of-information law lead to more honest government?

Intuition says “of course,” but a newly released study by a University of Missouri researcher challenges that assumption.

Doctoral student Edson C. Tandoc Jr. surveyed data from 168 countries to determine whether the intuitive link between “government that’s more open” and “government that’s more ethical” can actually be proven.

His findings indicate that, while there’s a positive correlation between low government corruption and long-established public-access laws, there is actually a negative correlation between government honesty and the rigorousness of FOI enforcement. In other words, countries with well-enforced FOI laws also tend to be those perceived as more corrupt.

Tandoc offers an intriguing explanation. FOI laws typically are implemented in response to a perceived corruption problem. (That was certainly the case in the United States, where the federal FOIA law, originally enacted in 1966, was overhauled in 1974 following the Watergate scandal into the statute that exists today.) “Younger” FOI laws tend to be more rigidly enforced as users test them out. Once the law has been on the books for years, excitement fades and the zeal for enforcement wanes:

Once the problem of corruption is solved and the law has fulfilled its promise, it fades into oblivion(.)

Since the study’s measurement of corruption is based on surveys of perceived levels of corruption, it’s also likely that more aggressive requests and more faithful compliance by government agencies results in more wrongdoing being exposed. To this way of thinking, well-enforced FOI laws lead to more corrupt government just as well-functioning kitchen lights lead to more cockroaches.

One takeaway from the study: Citizens commonly take advantage of their FOI rights in response to a near-term problem. Once the problem is perceived as having ameliorated, people stop making requests. Which means FOI laws are not realizing their full potential as a routine preemptive check on future corruption.

You can read the entire study at this link, and you can learn more about making FOI requests on the Student Press Law Center’s “Access to Records” page.