Government secrecy: public attitudes toward information provided by the authorities

Date20 July 2015
Publication Date20 July 2015
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/RMJ-07-2014-0032
Pages197-222
AuthorJohanna Gunnlaugsdottir
SubjectInformation & knowledge management,Information management & governance
Government secrecy: public
attitudes toward information
provided by the authorities
Johanna Gunnlaugsdottir
Department of Information Science, Faculty of Social and Human Sciences,
University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland
Abstract
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present ndings of a survey conducted during 2012 in
Iceland with the intent of examining public opinion on government provision of information, i.e.
whether the public felt that the authorities withheld information, either about subjects of general public
interest or about public expenditures, if the authorities felt there was a reason to do so.
Design/methodology/approach – A survey questionnaire was sent in March 2012 to almost two
thousand Icelanders. This was a random sample selected from the National Registry. The response rate
was almost 67 per cent. The survey was modelled on other research and resources that had examined
trust toward public authorities and the inuence of Freedom of Information Acts on government
information practices.
Findings – The survey discovered that the greater part of the citizenry felt that the authorities did
keep important information of general public interest secret often or sometimes. Only 2-3 per cent of
them believed that this never happened. Most of those surveyed felt as well that important information
about public expenditures was often or sometimes withheld. Only 3-5 per cent of the respondents were
of the opinion that this never happened.
Practical implications – The results could be of value to public authorities that want to improve the
provision of information and practice according to freedom of information act. They could also bring
varied and valuable opportunities to the profession of records managers as well as others who practice
information management.
Originality/value The survey adds valuable information and fulls a need for a better
understanding of what the public believes regarding government provision of information in Iceland.
Although the survey is limited to Iceland, these ndings may also be of value to public authorities and
researchers in the Western World, Australia and New Zealand, to give a few examples where the culture
and the practice of government may not be that different, as well as in other countries. The survey can
lay the foundation for further research into the eld.
Keywords Transparency, Iceland, Freedom of information act,
Information and records management, Secrecy, Trust in public authorities
Paper type Research paper
Introduction
Keeping citizens informed is an important part of the responsibilities of government.
Increased transparency is considered by many to strengthen the underpinnings of
democracy. Many feel that trust in government increases with transparency and the
availability of better information and that the prerequisites of transparency are to be
found in Freedom of Information Acts. However, for a long while, the question has been
hotly disputed among the experts whether increased transparency really does lessen
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/0956-5698.htm
Government
secrecy
197
Received 31 July 2014
Revised 29 October 2014
4 January 2015
Accepted 9 January 2015
RecordsManagement Journal
Vol.25 No. 2, 2015
pp.197-222
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
0956-5698
DOI 10.1108/RMJ-07-2014-0032
distrust. This question has been increasingly posed in the state governments and other
governmental agencies for the past 40 years, as surveys have shown. In addition, the
experts do not agree on the validity and importance of the Freedom of Information Acts,
among other things, whether they really do support better provision of information and
increased transparency. The doubters feel that increased transparency can lead to
exposure of corruption and mistakes that can in turn result in increased distrust.
Freedom of Information Acts have been enacted in many countries, and the
proponents feel that such acts lead to greater development of democracy. Those
opposed, on the other hand, feel that enactment of such laws can lead to increased
government secrecy and that an effort could be made to keep issues from becoming
publicised by avoiding documenting information about them.
This paper reports on an Icelandic research carried out in 2012 with the intent of
examining public opinion on government provision of information, i.e. whether the
public felt that the authorities withheld information about certain subjects if they felt
that there was a reason to do so. The research is a part of an interdisciplinary research
project in the School of Social Science at the University of Iceland: Political Legitimacy
in Trying Times: A Study of Power and Democracy in Iceland. The data analysis took
place during the years 2012-2014. The ndings of the research show that the greater part
of the citizenry felt that the authorities did indeed keep information secret, both about
issues of interest to the public and public expenditures.
The paper is divided into ve sections. The rst presents the scholarly background to
the study, leading into a discussion of the objective of the data collection and the
methodology. The results are covered in two separate sections. The discussion in the
rst part concerns whether the respondents felt that the authorities kept important
information of general interest from the public, i.e. about the environment, social
welfare, public health and education. The discussion in the second part concerns
whether the respondents felt that the authorities withheld from the general public
information about public expenditures, i.e. about the allocation of public funds (grants
and appropriations, contracts for public works, projects and such). The paper closes
with a summary and discussion of the research.
Background
This paper presents the results of a study which was carried out in Iceland, whether the
public felt that the authorities withheld important information concerning public
interests and public expenditures, if the authorities saw a reason to do so. Because no
comparable study was found, it appears that a similar research has not been carried out
before, neither in Iceland nor in other countries. On the other hand, there has been
considerable research on:
trust in governments and other authorities in terms of transparency and the
provision of information; and
the inuence of the Freedom of Information Acts on transparency and the
provision on information, trust in the authorities and their work and their
reliability.
In connection with the present study, it was felt interesting to review studies and sources
about this material as scholars have maintained that transparency and increased
provision of information has led to increased trust. Many consider this approach to be
RMJ
25,2
198

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT