On tuderechoasaber.es, a platform to submit online FOI request to Spanish institutions, it has become more and more common to see Spanish institutions answer access to information requests with links to online forms. This practice is inappropriate because it places unnecessary obstacles in the way of accessing information as well as being uncommon in other countries.

¿Why is it not recommended to use forms?

Firstly, because international standards, such as the Council of Europe’s Convention on Access to Public Documents, establishes that to ask for information you should only have to indicate the necessary information in order for your request to be answered. When speaking about identification, simply requesting a name is enough in order to be able to direct answers to the requestor.

In the case of online forms, the vast majority demand a lot of information, including a number of your national identity card. Without exception the worst case in Spain is Navarra where in order to make an electronic request for information, you must provide number of your national identity card or digital certificate to enter as well as data such as your postcode and telephone number. This is an extreme interpretation of the article in the access to information law of Navarra that indicates the requestor should identify themselves and is something that goes against international access to information standards.

Secondly, because requesting information should be a quick and easy process. Every step added to the requesting process is an unnecessary obstacle dissuading people from submitting requests, making a transparency law less effective. Having to give all this data, most of all a DNI number, discourages many people when they are about to make a request.

Thirdly, because email is a medium that we use every day for both professional and personal communication. The Spanish administration should adapt to these new ways of communicating.

Finally, one of the policy catchphrases of open government is that an administration must be close to its citizens. People use email to communicate with each other, whereas forms create a distance between citizens and administrations; not knowing to whom you are making your request nor who is in charge of answering it. This is despite the objectives of open government that Spain and many others say they are implementing.

¿What happens in other countries?

From a survey made through the FOIAnet, the global network of access to information experts, we were able to find out about the situation in 13 countries; Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, the United States, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Jordan, the UK, Romania, Ukraine and Uruguay. Only 4 out of the 13 countries force requestors to send requests via forms; Brazil, Chile, Georgia and Uruguay. Georgia in fact has now approved a law to allow requests to be sent via email, which will enter into force on 1 September 2013.

Asking these and other experts around the world on the issue, all clearly expressed they were against the use of forms for various reasons:

  • Because forms force requestors to include unnecessary information.
  • Because before there was a law that obliged to use forms, asking for information was much easier.
  • Because you cannot make a follow-up request or respond to the person responsible for your request.
  • Because in any case, to better recognise the right to access information, it would be best to allow a large number of ways to make a request.

Whilst Spain is debating its transparency law, amongst all the recommendations given for an efficient and modern law, we also recommend the non-use of forms which demand unnecessary information.