Transparency law unknown and underused

The law was introduced to make the workings of government more transparent Keystone

A Swiss law governing the freedom of information is relatively unknown among the public and should be promoted to become effective, the authors of a study say.

This content was published on July 2, 2009 - 08:09

Speaking this week they said there have been just 565 requests for access to unreleased official information since the law on transparency was introduced in 2006.

The figure pales in comparison to Britain, which has around 100,000 requests a year using similar legislation, and the United States, where there are millions.

Use is even low among the media, typically the most interested in exercising such rights, according to the study into the application and effectiveness of the law.

While its introduction has been considered successful for bringing to an end an era of confidentiality in government, more needs to be done to raise awareness of its potential among the public.

The authors also found that there was an inconsistency in the way different cantons responded to requests for information.

A series of recommendations will be presented to the cabinet to improve its use, including employing more staff to handle requests and limiting the potential costs involved in drawn out cases.

"The verdict is that there are no significant problems in the application of this law but there is a certain disappointment about its use, albeit by citizens or people interested in documents provided by the government," said the study's main author, Martial Pasquier, a professor at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration.

He said that as well as being relatively unknown, the possible reasons for the law's "extremely low" take-up were that a number of official documents were already accessible, and under the Swiss political system, there was active participation of all opposition parties in government. This meant they had direct access to information produced by the administration.

Few curious journalists

The Swiss study notes that the law is not sufficiently known among the media and recommends steps to improve use by journalists.

In Britain, the Freedom of Information Act generates around 120,000 requests a year, up to 20 per cent of which come from journalists. The act has recently been used to spearhead moves to publish expenses of British members of parliament, resulting in a rash of resignations in the past month and provoking a debate over government reforms.

"It's true that it is relatively unknown. But on the other hand it is also true that the media often have access to what they need without having to call on the law," Dominique von Burg, president of the Swiss press council, told swissinfo.ch.

He noted that in some cases journalists were "not curious enough" to use the law fully, but it was also unclear which documents could even be made available. "It is difficult to ask for something if one doesn't know it exists."

The federal data protection and information commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, acknowledged that more resources were needed "to publicise the law".

Anne Schwöbel, managing director of the Swiss branch of the non-governmental organisation Transparency International said making the law better known was essential to improving its use.

"In general we support this law because I think it is a key element of a modern democracy. It is very, very important to increase government transparency for the Swiss citizen. The problem is that it is not used because it is not very well known. The government should make an effort to improve that," she told swissinfo.ch.

Too many exemptions

She noted that other problems were its complicated structure and a large list of exemptions to the rule, including the Swiss National Bank, the Swiss Banking Commission, parliamentary commissions and cabinet.

"Parliament can effectively withdraw particular administrative units or organisations from the obligations of the law if their mandates require it. You cannot get access to documents related to legal procedures, be they civil, criminal or linked to international cases. This new law does not help very well in this sense," she noted.

The Swiss political system could also explain why there was little interest. "Maybe people think that with the processes of democracy, where you have the possibility to force a referendum, or where you have the possibility to see the draft of a bill, are enough," she said.

A large amount of information is held, not by the federal government, but at the smaller and more accessible cantonal and local levels, she added.

The study authors note that despite early teething problems, citizens are now able to tap into the law and keep government on its toes.

"It's a process," Pasquier told swissinfo.ch. "You don't go from total secrecy to total transparency from one day to the next.

"It is important to put the situation into context. It is a law that serves to safeguard the framework of relations between government and citizens."

Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch

Key facts

From July 2006-December 2008, there were:
565 requests for information under the law on transparency
313 requests granted
252 requests refused or partially granted
70 requests went to appeal

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Key recommendations

Key recommendations from the study by the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration:

Increase resources in the federal data protection and information commissioner's office.

Make the law better known among potential users, and in particular the media, and within government.

Improve coordination in the processing of requests among cantons.

Introduce the right for the federal data protection and information commissioner to appeal against refusals by the government.


Key proposals by the federal data protection and information commissioner's office for cabinet:

Create three jobs dedicated to carrying out work related to the law.

Fix the level for which costs associated with an appeal to a request at between SFr100-500.

Improve the role of the federal data protection and information commissioner in mediating appeals.

Increase the time during which an appeal case can be studied.

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