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FOIA Indian Style

- November 11, 2010

On the White House blog, Samantha Powers describes a meeting President Obama had in India on government transparency. In 2005, India adopted a Right to Information Act (RTIA). RTIA is remarkable in scope in that it (unlike FOIA) applies to all levels of government. Within the first 2,5 years of the law’s adoption, Indians had filed about 2 million individual requests. Many of these involved queries about benefit applications or were aimed at exposing corrupt practices.

As Alasdair Roberts details in a new article in Public Administration Review, the implementation of this law is not without problems (the article is temporarily ungated due to its topicality). Uneven public awareness, lack of bureaucratic resources, and bureaucratic hostility all pose severe problems.Yet, Indian civil society groups have been remarkably innovative in overcoming these obstacles, using both low-tech (e.g. puppet theater) and high-tech means (e.g. ipaidabribe.com) to spread the word and teach citizens how to hold their public officials accountable. The U.S. and other governments have invested in India’s implementation efforts and are now investing resources that allow Indian civil society groups to share their best practices with groups abroad. Roberts highlights that there are now about 70 countries that have adopted FOIA style laws, many in recent years and many in less affluent democracies. It strikes me as good public policy (and good political science) to invest in civil society groups that can use these laws to make democracy work.

update: Mike Tierney points out in the comments that researchers can also use the law to get access to (foreign aid) data.