Crowdfunding gaining strength as an FOI tool – but will governments seek a seat at the table?

As reported by Peter Timmins in his Open & Shut blog, and as I have commented on Twitter, crowdfunding is beginning to become an interesting tool for fundraising the cash requested by government agencies for fulfilling FOI responses.

Where governments are still using charging for FOI searches as a cost-recovery tool (and potentially occasionally as a barrier to releasing information), crowdfunding offers the advantage of spreading the cost across a range of people and organisations in a structured way.

Peter points to an article in FreedomInfo, Crowdfunding FOI Requests Gains in Use, Seems to Work, which highlights how this tactic is being used in four jurisdictions.

Where these crowdfunding approaches are public, which is the usual case, they also draw greater attention to these FOI requests, potentially marshalling a range of interested parties around the release request.

While it is still very early days for this approach, it does raise the prospect of a new wave of organising around areas where government is perceived to be secretive or evasive – where interested individuals, activists and even business interests can raise public and even media attention for a range of topics that otherwise would remain under the radar.

There’s a few permutations of this approach likely to emerge involving ‘crowd’ but without always being about ‘funding’. For example we’ve already seen crowdsourcing of insights from FOI responses (including by The Guardian in the UK and Fairfax in Australia) and have also seen FOI requests around a given topic being coordinated by grassroots groups seeking a full understanding of complex situations.

There’s also the potential to establish collaborative funding models – where there’s X dollars placed in a pool to fully or partially fund different FOI requests each month or year, and contributors to the fund can vote on which FOI requests these funds are applied to.

I also expect to see crowdfunding mechanisms built into more FOI platforms, such as Right to Know in Australia, and increasing use of ‘crowd’ approaches to FOI across by individuals, activists and media outlets.

The most interesting question is whether governments will seek to have some influence in these processes by implementing their own central platforms for crowdfunding FOI requests, or will continue to pursue a ‘hands-off’ fragmented process to FOI as the majority do today.

Given the success of the US and UK governments’ ePetition platforms, and the steps into collaborative law making in Scandinavian countries, I would tip these jurisdictions as the most likely to take a step into providing an FOI request and crowdfunding platform.

This would also allow governments to realise cost benefits through standardising and streamlining FOI request and review processes within and across agencies as well as aggregating similar FOI requests and providing centralised access to already released information, thereby saving agency time and money in attempting to discover this or telling people manually that information is already in the public domain.

Establishing their own FOI management and crowdfunding system may also allow the governments concerned to allocate a monthly budget offsetting legitimate FOI costs, which could be accessed by individual FOI requests through approaches such as collaborative budgeting or an 80/20 approach (if 80% is funded, the government contributes the other 20%), as has been used in the UK successfully for other crowdfunding.

If governments decide not to enter this space, larger civic groups will, leading to a situation over time where governments will increasingly find increased public scrutiny over what is released, to whom and for how much – as well as what is refused release or where charges appear high.

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