Transparency begins at home


Wilfried Ruetten, director of the EJC, spoke on 15 May at the Maastricht seminar, “Transparency and Data Protection: Cooperating or Conflicting Elements of Good Governance?”

A transcription of his speech, delivered to the European Institute of Public Administration, follows.

The speech was not transcribed in its entirety. But this audio file includes the entire 50-minute talk.

Wilfried Ruetten on access (MP3):

The role of journalists in freedom of information

When preparing this I thought, ‘Oh yes, this is the ideal topic for journalism.’

Then I had to find out, it isn’t really. Because journalists, yes, they would advocate access to documents a lot. But would they use it a lot? No, they wouldn’t. Why is this? You can also hear it in the discussion in the afternoon. It has to do with timelines. Saying, ‘This will be published in six weeks, this will be published in six months. This will be published in 2009, for the record.’ For scholars and academics this would be fine. But journalists have no time usually. So I have a deadline tonight at 7 o’clock. So I would have told my editor when I was still a working journalist, ‘Hey give me six months more time and I come up with a story.’ I could have told him this once every half a year but then he would have killed me or fired me. And say, ‘Hey, give me a story for tonight or give me the story at least for tomorrow.’


This idea of getting something in six months is good for posterity, and maybe also it’s good if you’re writing a Ph.D., on something. But it’s not good for if you have a 7 o’clock deadline. Or now with the Internet publishing going on, they have a permanent deadline. Nobody will wait for me to come to a conclusion and say, ‘Hey I am on the track of this huge scandal within Commission and within six months I may have the document relating to this.’

Because A, I might not – as we heard, two-thirds of requests are granted but one-third aren’t. And of course what I also learned, there is no master list telling me what I could be looking for. So these are the real handicaps. So journalists are basically in a double role here.

Examples: United States

Ruetten pointed to a slew of Internet resources during his talk. He mentioned each specifically. Most of his words are transcribed here, but this is not meant to be a complete transcription.

DRUDGE REPORT 2008® - a breaking news site from the US. It gives you an indication of the sense of urgency the profession is concerned with. It gives an indication that there is no real background. The reason I show it to you is this nice button here, and it says, “Send news tips to Drudge, anonymity guaranteed.”

This is basically the way journalists have been working in the last decades. It’s less about searching in documents. It’s more developing people who have access to documents. So all I need is somebody within commission if you want who knows there is this little paper hidden somewhere and he gives it to me in his noon break. This is basically how journalism works. You develop sources over the years.

Journalists are really used to that kind of people business rather than searching for documents in a strict sense.

Examples: Pentagon Papers, Watergate Scandal.

Good reporting with documents: Recent scandal with US Defense Department paying “independent” military analysis. But this is a question of economy and tradition.


Both the CIA and FBI have a dedicated site where they tell you what kind of documents you may access. It’s quite transparent. If we imagine Common Foreign Security Policy people putting any documents out that they have, this would be completely weird. Everybody would say hey, are they allowed to do this?

Of course the CIA, it’s not that it’s completely transparent. How could it be? But they have to make a dedicated effort here. They have a FOI reading room, so they put stuff there. The government is expected to put things out. It’s not, it’s a nice gesture kind of thing or shouldn’t we be open more to public. No, this is the first amendment of the constitution. So there is a very strong necessity of governance to deliver this. It’s not, ‘Maybe I do, Maybe I don’t’…. It’s quite interesting how open they have to be. Of course they’re still obfuscating and of course you won’t find the big, bad thing in documents they may give here. But at least the tradition is a different one that even the CIA and FBI and these guys have to have some kind of transparency as such. They don’t need an ombudsman. This is the normal thing to do, to open any official document they have. It’s a different tradition there. And it’s not just a tradition in the US.

For example this The online network of freedom of information advocates.

It’s just one example of the idea that there’s a world-wide movement toward transparency. There’s a world-wide interest in this. It’s not just the United States and it’s not just Europe. It’s a lot of countries. This is basically monitoring countries how far each of the countries on the list how far each country has some FOI access rules in place or is working on this or what the situation is. It gives a lot of links and resources to other websites.


There’s this one little thing here ifti watch, which is basically transparency for international finance and trade institutions. Which is to say, the IMF, the World Bank, organisations like that. United Nations Food Programme. Those kind of organisations would have to be scrutinised and would also have to be opening up their resource and opening what they know about their job or profession or their customers. So this is not just on a scoop/research level, making headlines. There is a lot of civic society interest here in getting especially international organisations as transparent as possible and pushing them to be so.

This won’t go away. This isn’t a trend, like wearing pink shoes. This is ongoing and it will be ongoing and you will see over the years that this movement for transparency will only increase. Once citizens realize they have this opportunity, this tool, they will not forgo it anymore. They will insist on having more access to documents in a more timely fashion. There’s quite a few websites based on freedom of information.

There’s another one, Transparency International. This is a global coalition against corruption. It has to do with governance as well. This again is opening sources.image This again is getting you - if you really do research - is getting you somewhere finding more about politicians finding more about funds, what happened to all the tsunami money for example. It’s all sitting in some Swiss bank account I think, two-thirds of this, from what I heard, because they haven’t spent it yet in Indonesia. That kind of story, that kind of issue, would be covered in a site like this. For journalists there are some transparency issues are interesting but they’re not immediate. It’s a long or mid-term process to do this.

FOIAnet - There’s a special dedicated Right to Know Day coming up. This site explains resources projects running on these issues on a world or international level. Basically this is just to say, for those people from civic society also in the room, you are not alone. There are a lot of these people doing it. Even though it seems sometimes you have this crazy fight against the powers that be, yes there are quite a few others out there who have a similar idea about transparency and openness and FOI. Training journalists on this issue, it just goes to show, don’t give up on this. There’s more support. There’s other people interested in doing it. You’re not crazy to be interested in this. No, this might be interesting and worthwhile. And on civic values this is a very important thing to do.

Information & Access - OMB Watch – is basically doing the same stuff, more American focus on the Environmental Protection Agency: what they do with their money, what is the chemical company influences on EPA policies, that kind of thing.

There’s quite a lot going on. Especially in Europe this is just emerging or this is just getting interesting. Because now governments have to embrace this. And also what we just heard it will be more open still in the future. Training journalists on this is a long stretch. It’s not immediate gratification if you want but there is some hope of getting this done because there is already so much being done elsewhere.

  International Budget – also concerned with how money is being spent in development country and how public money is spent in third-world countries, if you want. In several languages; I think this one is in Spanish and English. How public procurement is set up, what can be done about making this more transparent, and so-on and so-forth.

  Freedom of Information Center at the Missouri School of Journalism—International FOI Laws – It’s a repository of international laws of freedom of access that you can use a lot and especially they make a special contribution or mention to former president Carter’s international conference on the right to information, which is basically, from what I understood doing research on this, is basically the state of the art situation or Carter has made suggestions that are very far-reaching and the Council of Europe has not followed this. So Europe could learn a lesson or two from the suggestions made from the Carter Center here on what ideally should be the public right on information.

  Poynter Online - First Amendment / FOI Bibliography – Poynter Online is the major training site for US journalists. They have an FOI bibliography that is really lengthy that gives you an idea on how important especially the US colleagues find these first amendment issues. It just goes on and on and on. It gives you an idea how different the tradition the Americans have on this. It gives books and everything. It’s more than a Ph.D., subject it’s a professorial subject if you want to do a thesis on that in Europe it might be enough to do a Ph.D., on it but there’s not a lot of sources available on it. If you look at Poynter you see what a long-standing tradition this is, FOI. It’s not just something that came up to us in the 21st century. They’ve been doing it a long time and taking it seriously.


Which doesn’t mean they’re a more democratic society, this is something else. But at least it’s open out there. The issue at the end of the day will be, the truth is out there and nobody cares about it. That makes it even worse. At least we in Europe here we still believe hey, if we find the truth we change the world. In the US, there are so many truths obviously there and still nobody cares about it that nobody nothing gets done about it. It’s a different kind of democracy if you want. If we had so much access to information like the Americans do it might be a lot of turmoil here. In the US most people probably don’t even know or are not interested so much. If you look at circulation of quality newspapers there, it’s basically on the two coasts, east coast and west coast. You have some people who are really interested in this, but in the middle of the country a lot of people wouldn’t even consider this.

They also have these Sunshine laws, let the sunshine in let light come into the document. image The SPJ has a dedicated website on FOI and they make this sunshine week every year and try to develop a best practiceon what has been achieved on this and also give journalists a chance to show off their work, what they have done by using access to documents. Again this sunshine in government initiative, it’s a little the name is a little fancy, if you want it, doesn’t sound very serious but again this is something for journalists to work on. Basically, supporting them is initiative it is worthwhile going for documents and it is worth it doing the and you can also publish the research somewhere.

  The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government – Also an American coalition. This is again a dedicated group of people interested very much in FOI and also declassifying a subject and so-on and so-forth. This is quite big, actually.

  MediaShift Idea Lab . Open Government Data and the EveryBlock Project \| PBS
  EveryBlock — A news feed - the most local level. So you have information publicly available information on your block where you’re living. How much are the housing prices in your neighbourhood, school prices, how many criminals live in my block how many sex offenders live in the vicinity and that kind of thing. In Europe we would have more issues of data protection maybe. In the US you can see databases that are public where you can see how many sex offenders live in your neighbourhood.  In Germany at least it would be impossible to do just for privacy of information and protecting individuals. But there you can basically look… The FOI is not only used for government but also for very profane uses like, ‘Shouldn’t we go to Philadelphia north… Oh basically no there is too high a crime rate, let’s rather move to Philadelphia west…”

Examples: Europe

We come to the European part. – This is probably the example most people know. It’s still in beta even though it’s been running two years now. It’s basically concerned with who gets what from the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s a joint effort of several member state people to come to terms with how the big budget in agriculture is being spent and distributed. Then it turned out of course that a lot of royals profit from this, a lot of really big corporations are profiting from this. It’s not the little farmers on the hill so much. We all knew this kind of but having this in black and white and being able to read how much the Queen of England is profiting from Common Agricultural Policy is quite interesting and of course it makes nice headlines. Again this is something for journalist that you can really get your teeth into. The problem is that it supports preconceived ideas of what the policies are in the first place anyway.


It has received a lot of attention, they’re also doing something now about medical areas that might be harder to penetrate and what also should be done I guess – so if I were there what I would do is look into DG regional development monies. They’re sitting on a big pile of money and where is this going to who is the beneficiary there how are they related to everybody else. Is there in-laws involved. This is again a common ground for journalists. If I can point to some nephew of somebody getting money even though eh shouldn’t, this is the classical journalism report. It’s quite fun.

They made this effort and you see there are some countries here that have given partial access to documents. Some of them have opened up their libraries, if you want, in a very good manner … It’s not the usual suspects really. You would always suppose the more northern you are the more access you get, no it isn’t. There are some very restricted countries – Austria and Greece denied any access to any documents. …

I think this started in 2005 and it made quite some headlines and this is basically a best-practice example of if you have a joint effort and you don’t give up and you basically nag people for a long time, it eventually gets you somewhere. …

You should really look at it – it looks nice, not so corporate. It’s not serious-serious-serious but they are doing a good job.

  Statewatch: Freedom of Information in the European Union – A systematic job of researching this. It’s the one source you need in Europe. It collects a lot. This is very serious. It’s following the process for several years. So for any journalist training we do, doing FOI issues, that would be the one address to go to and say have a look there. All official documents are linked there…. It’s quite outspoken sometimes as well. It’s not half-assed. It’s pretty much to the point. And I really also like the diction, if I may say so, of getting to it. Not being so polite that at the end of the sentence you don’t know what you said in the first place. It’s pretty much to the point and not obfuscating at all.


News - Wobbing Europe – Wobbing is a Dutch word, Dutch slang…. They do a lot of news, it’s a quite lively site with news, with references, with drumming up support. If you look at the timing of the news it pretty much keeps you up to date on the issue. Also they support some prizes, in Norway, there’s a big prize out for access to documents, so they’re supporting this approach of telling journalists hey you may not be able to make a living from this but you may be able to get some money or some recognition if you focus on access to documents. Next to state watch this is the most important site you should be looking at, from what I saw.


It’s quite deep and they give practical help on how to do this. Talking about freedom of information access to documents is one thing but going through the motion is something else. So they give you some advice on the procedure on the step-by-step. …

They’re making quite a good job and it’s interestingly enough funded by the Flemish government and the Pascal Decroos Fund in Belgium . Usually you see governments on the other side of this a lot. Governments support a lot of NGOs in a lot of ways but FOI access to documents is not a highly-subsidized category of journalism, let me tell you. Why should they? I can understand governments why they would not fall over themselves to help journalists get documents, which is a natural issue. Here I must say give credit to the Flemish government in Belgium for supporting this and having it up and running. …

Ruetten discussed at length the chaotic information architecture obfuscating the site. He noted: Transparency starts at home. It doesn’t start with the big thing that you have been hiding and now put on the table. It’s a more incremental process, I believe, of enabling people to find things that are already there.

The big picture

What is the big picture about this. We’re very much focused on the little picture, FOI, access to documents. We should look at it a little more from the outside and see this as part of the movement toward Lisbon goals of a real knowledge society of basically changing the way we’ve been used to doing things into a more knowledgeable environment. … If we take this knowledge society seriously, it will have to be based more on a culture of sharing then a culture of owning. The old culture would be this is my thing and I’m not giving it to you. Like children on the playground. I have this little three-wheel bike and it’s my bike and don’t even touch it. This is a very traditional way of doing it and then you own it and you appropriate it. The new way of doing things would be much more about sharing. Much more open. I have something you want it, I want to share with you, that’s why you give me something back. It’s more of a relationship idea than an ownership idea. It’s more a horizontal approach than a vertical approach. It’s more a culture of trusting your next door to help you with stuff and not ripping you off. IT also has to do, if you look at it, with the new copyright regime.

The old copyright regime everybody is working under now is this appropriation thing, this is my little thing and if you want to have something you pay for it. If you look at a more horizontal or a more flat copyright regime that would allow people to share more knowledge to share more patents to share more research from universities and so on.

Of course governments should also be or will also be a part of this sharing idea. If you want government 2.0 would just be this: embracing civic values integrating as much dialogue as possible into the political process being very transparent about how the process looks.