Asking for information in the face of silence

Last week we saw what it’s like running an Alaveteli site in New Zealand, which has had an established Freedom of Information law for 30 years.

Meanwhile, there’s a very different picture in Spain, where, together with Access Info EuropeDavid Cabo of Civio set up

As you may recall from our blog post back in April 2012, Tu Derecho A Saber [Your Right To Know] was launched into a high-octane political environment, to a country where Freedom of Information had been repeatedly promised but not delivered.

At that time, the Spanish government was just about to open a public consultation. 16 months later, what has been the result, and what place has Tu Derecho A Saber found in the Spanish culture? David explains.

“It’s still a very intense political environment around here. The Freedom of Information draft has slowly dragged through Congress, and was approved last week. Now it needs to go to the Senate and come back.

“Once approved, there will be a one-year implementation period, so we expect the law to be effective by the end of 2014.

“We’ve been lobbying to improve the law, which does not meet international standards and has a number of critical flaws. Meanwhile there is a huge mistrust among citizens about politicians and public bodies, mostly because of the growing number of corruption scandals being investigated by journalists and judges, some of them involving the main political parties.”

With legislation that’s still lacking, the site faces a challenge. Take a look at the homepage right now, and you’ll see a link to the site’s 2012 report [in Spanish].

Of the 567 valid requests for information received during 2012, only 13% received a valid response. Administrative silence [is] the greatest obstacle to the right of access to information in Spain. 

So, given this environment, what is the biggest difficulty for Cabo?

“The site is running fine, no technical issue at all.

“Our main challenge is trying to keep users motivated in the face of public bodies that clearly don’t care.

“Most people still don’t know much about access to information. The ones that do come and ask questions get easily frustrated about the lack of response (they’re just met with silence, normally), so right now I’d say our users are those citizens who are particularly motivated and conscious.

“Sometimes the administration says that emails are not a valid channel for access to information requests, and asks our users to go via their own web forms. Sometimes we do that (or ask the user to do it himself), and the results are the same: silence, or sometimes an automated acknowledgement that doesn’t go anywhere.

“Opacity is certainly not limited to our website, you get the same by phone or letter.”

You may ask, “Why run a Freedom of Information website in such an unwelcoming environment?”.

We look at it this way: by publishing every request for information – answered or unaswered – Alaveteli creates a transparent and verifiable archive. If requests continue to go unanswered, the evidence grows – and, perhaps, so will the impetus for social change.

mySociety recommends setting up websites that reflect society as it should be, not websites that respond to how the law is today. We never reject a project because there’s no Right To Information in the target jursidiction. Indeed, you might see these projects as the most worthwhile of all.

Under such circumstances, one of the most important things Cabo can do is to foster awareness, of the act and of his website. With the topic being so high-profile in the news, there is also the opportunity for press coverage.

“Some journalists do understand how critical it is for their profession and for our democracy to have a good access to information law. Thanks to them we get the chance to explain in the media the many flaws of the proposed law, and compare the Spanish situation with that of countries around us, sometimes even on prime-time TV.

“In one of my FOI requests, I asked for the Congress budget in detail, but my request was denied repeatedly.

“The information only became public when it was leaked to journalists; we then managed to get a copy of the leaked data, and published it in full, which got some media coverage. This is an all too common example of how public bodies work in Spain: even basic information like a detailed budget is hidden from citizens”.

Social media gives them a platform too:

“We keep a blog that highlights good requests. It also covers bad examples, and you’ll see a lot of legal talk about the FOI draft.”

 Run a Freedom of Information website

As we’ve seen above, every jurisdiction is different, and the legal situation can make an enormous difference to what type of challenges you’ll face when running a Freedom of Information website.

But at least you won’t have to worry about the software. Alaveteli has been designed to work anywhere, whatever laws are – or are not – in place. We also have plenty of experience and can help you every step of the way.

If you’re interested in finding out more, drop us a line at

1 Comment