Blog - the long read

Empowering citizens for transparency: Using independent digital platforms for Freedom of Information

As the new federal Freedom of Information (FOI) law is being enforced in Austria in 2025, former visiting PhD researcher Julia Trautendorfer discusses the usage of FOI in Germany and what is still ahead for Austria. She shares insights obtained from discussions with a German digital FOI platform representative, and reflects on how such platforms can contribute to public sector transparency.

In today's digital age, transparency and accountability are crucial for fostering trust between citizens and government agencies. Leveraging technology, primarily through crowdsourcing, citizen science, and digital platforms, has emerged as a powerful means to achieve these goals. In this blog post, I delve deeper into how innovative approaches empower citizens for transparency, focusing on the role of digital FOI platforms. 

These platforms aim to increase public sector transparency by providing an anonymous and low-threshold way for everyone to file information requests to public organisations. They are usually hosted by non-governmental organisations, primarily funded by donations. The requests and the corresponding responses (if a response is received) are publicly available on the platform for everyone to access online. By filing requests, citizens hold government actors accountable for their actions and exert some democratic control. 

To provide a real-life perspective, I share my conversation with Vera, who works for the German FOI platform 'FragDenStaat', and her insights into the platform's operations.

FOI laws: Secrecy in Germany and Austria

In 2006, the German government enforced the federal FOI law, which binds public organisations at the federal level. All 16 federal states can also implement state FOI laws binding organisations on the state and municipal levels. While some states have implemented strong transparency laws mandating proactive disclosure, some have adopted federal regulations, and others lack any FOI regulation. FragDenStaat refers to this development as a confusing "three-class society".

Unlike its European counterparts, Austria is the only country in the European Union without a federal FOI law. Despite lengthy negotiations and draft laws shelved for over a decade, the Austrian government has finally issued a federal FOI regulation. This regulation, expected to come into effect in the fall of 2025, is a significant development for Austria's transparency landscape. Therefore, assessing the draft law and its practical implementation is currently impossible. Nonetheless, many view it as a repeal of official secrecy and a significant stride towards enhancing transparency within the Austrian public sector. However, the law has some loopholes: municipalities with fewer than 5000 inhabitants are exempt from the obligation to publish documents and public information proactively (although they are obliged to answer requests). According to Vera, only once enforced and implemented can we fully see the potential gaps in the FOI law.

FOI Platforms Empowering Communities

FragDenStaat and other FOI platforms provide user-friendly interfaces and a public records database, and they play a crucial role in facilitating the submission and tracking of FOI requests. These platforms ensure a certain level of operability, empowering individuals to exercise their right to information more effectively. Vera also points out the relevance of the FOI platforms as tools for those interested in working with the provided data. Once a request is successfully answered and a document has been released, it is accessible and stored on the platform and can be used by everyone. While these documents used to be "for the shelves and gathered dust over the years, they are, once requested via the digital platform, publicly available and visible online and can be accessed again and again, if needed", says Vera.

There has been a steep increase in the usage of FragDenStaat in Germany in the last few years. Since its launch in 2011, more than 200.000 requests have been filed via the platform. While most requests are directed towards executive organisations at the federal or state level, there has also been a significant number of requests seeking information from municipalities and local authorities. It suggests that even in smaller, local communities, citizens are increasingly interested in the activities of public organisations. A similar platform also exists in Austria ( However, the platform has yet to be well-known among the Austrian public. 


Responsiveness of Public Organisations

When we examine the responsiveness of German public organisations to citizens' requests, we encounter a significant variability. Vera points out that many authorities fail to thoroughly assess these requests, often leading to outright information denials due to inadequate scrutiny by civil servants. However, the threat of litigation following an information denial usually compels reluctant authorities to disclose information. On the other hand, some organisations are truly cooperative and committed to transparency. Vera emphasises that responsiveness primarily depends on the type of organisation. For instance, the Federal Ministry for the Environment is more open in document disclosure than the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Finance. Vera explains this variation by the differences in sensitivity of the ministries' topics. She also highlights the influence of political factors, stating, "You shouldn't forget that there are individuals and people behind such an inquiry process. I would say many people act straight according to the paragraph stipulated in the law, and they don't mean it in a bad way. But, of course, some topics have a political background, and they don't want to release them. If you look at it from a party-political perspective, the civil servants have quite a bit of power."

Information provision, therefore, depends not only on the FOI law but also on the inclinations of the individual civil servants handling the requests. Recognising the humans behind the request process is essential, as individuals within public organisations are tasked with upholding legal standards. According to Vera, accessing relevant information from authorities becomes more challenging as a subject becomes more 'hotly debated' in the public sphere. The accessibility of information is possibly linked to the intensity of public discourse surrounding a given issue.


Challenges and Future Trends in Austria

As Austria prepares to enact its federal FOI law in 2025, it faces a spectrum of opportunities and challenges in bolstering transparency and accountability. While the law signifies a significant stride forward, concerns regarding potential gaps in its effectiveness, such as the exemptions for smaller municipalities, have been raised. The future of FOI platforms in Austria holds promise for democratising access to information and fostering greater public engagement. However, their impact may depend on public visibility and uptake, necessitating urgent outreach and awareness-building efforts. In discussing the role of digital FOI platforms, it's crucial to raise questions about inclusivity and the potential for misuse or platform abuse by citizens. These challenges highlight the complexities inherent in implementing FOI laws and leveraging technology for citizen empowerment. Addressing them will be crucial in realising the full potential of FOI initiatives to foster trust between citizens and government institutions. Despite these uncertainties, a steadfast commitment to transparency remains essential for upholding democratic principles and ensuring public accountability.

Teaser picture by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash