Why having the Right To Know matters

Today is International Right To Know Day.

Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.

To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.

So, here goes:

The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings

Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.

Some relevant examples  of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.

The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account

Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.

Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.

Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.

The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them

Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.

People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!

The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities

It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.

These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.

The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better

There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.

For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.

The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent

Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.

For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.

Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.

For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.

There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.

So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.

Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.

Image: Scott McLeod (CC BY 2.0)

2 Comments

  1. Please could you inform me on the procedure of applying for a FOI also being from NI do we have the same rights to apply as GB ? The reason I ask I know we have a devolved goverment.

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