In order to pursue their preferred policy initiatives, governments often use procedural tools based on government information resources in order to attempt to alter the behaviour of policy network members involved in policy-making processes (Burris et al. 2005), just as they attemp to alter consumer and producer behaviour through the employment of substantive information-based tools.
Information-based procedural policy tools are those designed to affect policy processes in a way consistent with government aims and ambitions through the control and selective provision of information. As Hood suggested, these are ‘nodality’ instruments because the information exchanged is valuable largely as a function of the government’s position as a key nodal link in a policy network. Some of these efforts are aimed at promoting information release while others are aimed at preventing it.
Both European and American studies have found that governments have increasingly employed a variety of procedural information-based instruments to indirectly affect the outcomes of the policy process in a way that is consistent with their aims and objectives (Kohler-Koch 1996; Johansson and Borell 1999; Hall and O’Toole 2000). The most commonly observed and chronicled category of procedural tool is the type which focuses on the use of general information prevention or disclosure laws and other tools – such as access to information laws – in order to provide policy network actors with the knowledge required to effectively filter and focus their demands on government for new policy measures or reforms to older ones. However, governments are also very much involved in the use of communications on government websites and through other means (Gandy 1982; Hood and Margetts 2007) to provide additional information to policy network members in specific sectoral or issue areas.
Information release tools
Stanbury and Fulton (1984) describe two common types of procedural information release or disclosure tools: information disclosure (through freedom of information and privacy laws) and consultation/co-optation tools, like public hearings; the discreet use of confidential information such as planned leaks to the press; or planned public disclosure of government intentions.
Freedom of information legislation
These provisions allow access to an individual’s own records and those of others – with numerous exemptions – many benign (to protect other individuals from unnecessary disclosure) and allowing access to documents and records of others – with numerous exemptions – again many benign and intended (to protect individuals from unnecessary disclosure). These legislative arrangements were a feature of the centuries-old Scandinavian ombudsman system of administrative control and were introduced in many other countries in the 1970s and 1980s (Relyea 1977; Bennett 1988; 1990; 1991; 1992; Bennett and Raab 2003; Bennett and Bayley 1999; Howe and Johnson 2000). These are sometimes accompanied by ‘whistleblower’ acts; that is, bills intended to protect people who speak out about problems in the government’s bureaucracy. Through such legislation, bureaucrats are often offered legal represent popular forms of procedural information tool design.
Information release prevention tools
There is also a wide range of such tools designed to protect certain kinds of information on government activities or in government files. These include protecting not only information collected by governments but that which comes into their possession (for example from a foreign government or via documents filed in court cases, etc.). These range from wartime (and peacetime, for example a film review board) censorship and bans on political parties and speech (such as hate crimes legislation) to official secrets acts with various levels of confidentiality and penalties imposed for publicizing or releasing government secrets.
This has occurred in many countries during wartime but also in peacetime, for example as media, film or theatre censorship. This latter use has been slowly whittled away in most advanced countries as individual rights in democratic states have been ruled to trump government or collective ones but wartime prohibitions remain very common (Qualter 1985).
Official secrets acts
Official secrets acts are a replacement for censorship in many areas. They are often the most important statute relating to national security in many countries and are designed to prohibit and control access to and the disclosure of sensitive government information (Pasquier and Villeneuve 2007). Offences tend to cover espionage and leakage of government information. The term ‘official secret’ varies dramatically in meaning from country to country but broadly, allows governments to classify documents and prohibit release of different categories for sometimes very long periods of time (e.g. 50–75 years). All countries have some form of official secrecy although the legislative and executive basis for such laws varies quite dramatically between countries.
These exist in many jurisdictions as a counterpoint to access to information laws in which types of personal-specific information is excluded from such acts. Some jurisdictions have specific legislation devoted to this subject, usually with a focus on protecting personal information in areas such as health, financial or tax matters, and with respect to criminal proceedings.
These instruments are also quite varied but in general it is fair to say that restricting information is low cost to initiate but high cost to monitor and maintain, while the reverse is true of information disclosure. In terms of targeting it is true of both sets of instruments that it is very difficult to target either secrecy or disclosure on specific groups. As a result, these actions are typically more difficult to set up and take more time and effort than is often thought to be the case, making them an infrequent component of many policy designs.
As has been set out above, there are many different kinds of government communication and information activities, and in the past the lack of an effective taxonomy or framework for their analysis has made generalizing about their impact and patterns of use quite difficult. Describing information-based policy tools in the terms set out above helps to highlight the similarities and differences between different instruments and helps develop a relatively parsimonious taxonomy of their major types which can facilitate national and cross-national studies of their use and impact.
Information dissemination activities remain relatively low cost in terms of financial and personnel outlays, but compliance is a major issue and, as in all advertising activities, evaluating the impact of these campaigns is very uncertain (Salmon 1989a; 1989b). Adler and Pittle (1984: 161), for example, found ‘many of these programs require more careful planning, larger expenditures and longer implementation periods than they usually receive’.
The assumption that greater knowledge always equals greater compliance with government aims, for example, is not always the case. Alcoholism and drug abuse, for example, are complex problems that are not ‘rational’ in the sense that individuals continue to consume or engage in them while knowing their destructive attributes (so-called ‘demerit goods’) (see Walsh 1988; Weiss and Tschirhart 1994) and greater knowledge may not affect or alter behaviour in such cases.
Thus while it may be the dream of many governments that simply monitoring and communicating with people will accomplish all of their ends, this is not usually the case. The benefits to government in using such tools may thus be much lower than anticipated if such a high visibility instrument is perceived to have failed and the blame for a continuing policy problem is focused squarely on governments. Such considerations are a prominent feature in the design of policy alternatives envisioning the use of such tools.