Stefan Wehrmeyer

Ashoka Fellow
Germany
Fellow since 2022
This description of Stefan Wehrmeyer's work was prepared when Stefan Wehrmeyer was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

Stefan is driving a cultural shift towards open government in Germany by changing the power dynamics between the citizen sector and government. With FragDenStaat, he combines an easy-to-use tech platform to file FOI requests with lobbying, awareness and political campaigns in order to make government more transparent and thus strengthen democracy.

The New Idea

Stefan lowers the barriers for citizens to hold their government accountable to their right to information which serves as a basis for participatory democracy. Stefan has understood that in order for the government to become more transparent, rights of freedom of information (FOI) must be transformed into rights of transparency so that citizens ultimately won't have to actively claim their rights but are proactively provided with pivotal public information by the government. As a consumer watchdog for citizens' rights to information and transparency, he supports citizens, NGOs, and journalists in exercising their right to access information from German authorities. By combining individuals’ as well as mass requests from citizens with campaigns from NGOs, his FOI request platform FragDenStaat (engl: AskTheState) becomes a powerful and new tool that enables actors to jointly hold the state accountable and change the relationship and underlying power dynamics between citizens and government.

Other stakeholders in the field support citizens on a transactional basis related to FOI. Stefan, on the other hand, builds new architecture that is lowering the barriers for people to participate in political decision-making. He raises awareness of the problem and builds capacity among all stakeholder groups empowering everyone to create positive change in the field: Citizens learn how to go through FOI request processes from filling out a request form to successfully fighting the state in court, NGOs in the need of topical information to do effective changemaking learn how to acquire this information and how to build the capacity for data work in their own organization, journalists learn to start their own investigative research labs, and lawyers become experts in strategic lawsuits on the topic. Through in-house strategic litigation, FragDenStaat creates precedents in the area of FOI that lay the ground for future lawsuits strengthening the citizens’ rights and building up pressure on authorities.

The platform today serves more than two-thirds of all FOI requests in Germany. Successes in one federal state can be replicated in the other 15 federal states in Germany. Lighthouse projects, like the first successful passing of a transparency law in the federal state of Hamburg, are used as blueprints to other federal states on how transparency laws can be implemented. For international replication, Stefan has made his software behind the platform open source and it has already been taken up by other European countries like Austria and Finland. Furthermore, a new edition of staff members in Brussels shows Stefan’s vision to create European-wide change on the level of state transparency.

The Problem

The fact that government decisions are taken based on information that is not (fully) publicly accessible to citizens leads to a disequilibrium in power dynamics and a lack of trust in the democratic system. This in turn blocks political participation, progressive ideas and citizen movements. With the global pandemic, it became clearer than ever how media is struggling to do a good job in creating trust when information is withheld intentionally, scandals of politicians are revealed in retrospect, and fake news makes the running.

In Germany, culturally, the concept of a right to access government information is not anchored in people’s minds as it is in other parts of the world, like the United States of America. The culture of privacy, in turn, plays a central role in citizens' minds and in the media: Citizens are more aware of what personal information of theirs is accessible by government and corporates than of what information they might not have access to. As it is the same person performing the duties of the federal FOIA as well as the data privacy laws, the Federal Data Protection Commissioner, the priority lies on the latter like the role’s name suggests.

Because the government has no interest to provide information, not all citizens know about their rights, and a significantly lower percentage of those being aware of their rights are familiar with how to exercise them or have the social standing to do so. Access to information is currently limited to people with the right social contacts and an understanding of complex freedom of information procedures. There is a general belief and degree of surrendered acceptance among citizens that information from German authorities is inaccessible and politics happens behind closed doors. According to the 3rd Activity Report on FOI, which was issued by the then Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar, only 1,557 requests were made under the FOIA in 2010. The common belief of inaccessibility to information is not far from reality. In the event of a FOI request being issued with German authorities, the majority of requests are being ignored, denied, or significantly delayed. Many citizens give up hereafter or, in case of a high level of engagement, the unanswered request is being proceeded by courts. Court proceedings that are not accompanied by experts are long with a low rate of success.

The concept of free and unconditional access to information stored by government bodies is still relatively new from a legal perspective in Germany. The Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into force only in 2006, while such a law had been passed in many parts of the world already. India as one of the last countries, for instance, had passed the law four years before Germany. At the time it was passed into law by the German Bundestag (parliament) in 2005, only four of the sixteen federal states (Länder) had enacted FOI legislation. The number of Länder with their own FOIA now (2022) stands at thirteen. As governments change on a federal level, the risk of changes in this law still exists.

The Strategy

Stefan’s overarching goal is a cultural shift towards open government in Germany laying the ground for citizens’ trust in politics and participatory democracy. To achieve his ambitious goal, Stefan has a manyfold strategy based on incrementally working towards the tipping point in the system of government transparency: First, by giving citizens a tool to access information. Second, by making citizens aware of their right and by making it mainstream. Third, by giving information a vehicle to become contextualized for citizens. Fourth, by changing policy and legal infrastructure so that FragDenStaat becomes obsolete, and a cultural shift becomes embedded in the everyday practice and legal framework.

Firstly, the inquiry process under the FOIA must become more accessible to citizens. Through the platform FragDenStaat, citizens can make requests for information to public authorities with only a few clicks to any German government authority under the information laws applicable to that authority. FragDenStaat monitors the answers received from authorities to then provide help with court action in case citizens want to sue for neglected access to information. This gives citizens a new perspective on how impactful their own action can be no matter their social status, therefore, tackling the problem of powerlessness and political weariness and leading to experienced self-efficacy. The answers to the requests stay publicly available hereafter which already generates systems change because instead of the government providing information only to the ones requesting, information flows to all interested citizens. Many citizens have already changed their behavior in terms of FOIA requests. The latest information from the Statistics of the Federal Ministry of the Interior shows that in 2021, citizens submitted 14,616 requests to federal authorities under the FOIA, compared to 3,280 requests submitted under the FOIA in 2011 and 1,557 requests in 2010. The reason for this was the simplified application process for citizens through the online tool FragDenStaat.de. Today, 2/3 of all FOI requests in Germany go through this platform, and more than 100,000 people have made over 200,000 requests. In 2021, 6.2 million visits to the platform’s website show a rise in awareness and citizens’ willingness to act.

Through strategic campaigning with NGOs, Stefan uses the power of topical attention of society to make a largely unnoticed law known - and to get people to use it, too. He builds alliances with NGOs (e.g., Abgeordnetenwatch, Foodwatch) to actively advance the issue of FOI in all areas of society by bringing mass requests to specific authorities and building up pressure to respond. This leads to a concentration of power by those who have a great interest but very little influence on their own. It also leads to making FOI relatable, tangible, and relevant to citizens. A collaboration with Foodwatch, for instance, led to over 1.500 citizens becoming active and sending mass requests on the topic of the meat processing industries through FragDenStaat. Additionally, this mechanism leads to the generation of mass requests resulting in authorities being pressured into pro-actively publishing information around certain topics rather than dealing with overwhelming amounts of individual requests. Stefan’s goal is for authorities to have higher costs at being opaque than transparent.

His campaigns have led, among other things, to the Bundestag publishing thousands of expert opinions from the scientific service and draft laws from ministries with lobby opinions being freely available. Because of similar campaign, through Stefan and his team’s efforts, authorities made draft versions of federal laws available to the public together with a traceability of lobby influences. Something, that had not happened before. Strategic collaborations with central NGOs have further brought transparency into specific sectors and led to innovation in ensuring the accessibility of certain information. The project TopfSecret in collaboration with Foodwatch, for instance, collected 50,000 requests asking for information on food and hygiene of venues. This led to several hundred lawsuits against authorities denying information and resulted in five wins in front of higher administrative courts through FragDenStaat. Therefore, today there is a legal certainty regarding the right to information in the area of food safety and a transparent traffic light system for food hygiene in restaurants in one part of Berlin as a lighthouse project.

Strategic collaborations with journalists change the way information sources are being published leading to new practices in journalism and their readers to be sensitized towards their right to FOI. Like the NGOs bringing topical awareness, journalism serves as a vehicle to show citizens’ the importance of high-quality information sources and how that changes the resources with which they form their political opinions. Stefan creates opportunities for investigative journalism and independent reporting by supporting journalists in their process to access important information to uncover grievances. It moreover sensitizes citizens to the quality of sources of information. This is a central piece in that information becomes powerful with the right communication channels and the potential level of dissemination of information across society.

The accumulation of legal expertise in the area of FOI allows FragDenStaat to use the current official mechanisms to fight the authorities’ lack of transparency. Strategic lawsuits and litigations add to the pressure to hold authorities accountable and to gradually change the legal basis for FOI and transparency. On an individual level, citizens are being supported in their attempt to suit an authority for denying access to certain information. A litigation fund supports selected cases to finance lawsuits under FOI laws and attorneys are provided. To overcome resource limits and encourage proper handling of requests by authorities, users can generate a ‘failure to act’ lawsuit directly from their FOI requests if the authority does not respond. Through strategic litigation, FragDenStaat creates precedents in the area of FOI that lay the ground for future lawsuits strengthening the citizens’ rights and building up pressure on authorities. FragDenStaat has 58 ongoing FOI lawsuits, won nine in 2021, won nine in 2020, and won eleven in 2019. Winning lawsuits have led to landmark rulings.

On a federal state level, Stefan identifies opportunities for political changes in favor of a transparent state. One significant system change FragDenStaat contributed to, was the implementation of the transparency law in the federal state of Hamburg which today serves as the lighthouse state in Germany. Other states like Thüringen have followed the example, others like Berlin are in the process of adopting it. A civil society alliance including FragDenStaat has published a proposal for a federal transparency law.

These successes show that with access to information, power dynamics are shifting between citizens and government. Citizens feel empowered to be a part of identifying deficiencies and to contribute to better solutions for a more equitable future. The process of leaking information that had been in the hands of a few investigative journalists becomes a mainstream act every citizen can be part of. New independent civil society projects build on the success of FragDenStaat advancing the field of FOI in Germany. Sehrgutachten.de, for example, a civil society project based in Berlin, makes expert opinions of the Bundestag understandable and digestible to citizens. About 8,900 expert opinions are already online on the Bundestag website. Also, a slow but noticeable change in the culture of government can be observed: Stefan’s team senses willingness to change in some authorities. Tips have been given from employees of authorities to FragDenStaat about which documents are worth asking about.

By having started to tap both into EU transparency legislation and EU Networks of transparency groups and collaborating with transparency Fellows like Daniela Silva in Brazil, Stefan has consolidated the capacity to ensure scaling beyond Germany to European structures and mindsets.

The Person

Stefan has always been very passionate about solving problems in strategic and systemic ways as well as in data and software development. One common theme that started at the early age of 10, was the development of infrastructure to make information available and to openly share this infrastructure as software and templates with others. At school, he ran his school newspaper website and created a graduation yearbook generator that was then used by hundreds of schools. The experience showed him that software can bring people together to work collaboratively to solve problems.

Data and software, for him, were always about their value and contribution to societal issues. Early on, he developed and openly published hands-on solutions to problems around him such as making available public transport information so that citizens could use this to better plan their routes through a simulation. Other examples showing not only his entrepreneurial character but also his passion and activist quality are the Bundesgit, a public platform to make the origin, development and updating of laws easily understandable, and a platform providing library members easier access to newspaper articles online (which was fought by newspapers).

All those projects led to him become so interested in software development, that he decided to pursue a degree in this area. As a student, in 2009, he got hooked by the open data movement happening in the US which was founded on a civil society level. Intrigued, he started networking with some founders of the Open Knowledge Foundation to find out more about what could be possible in Germany. In order to accelerate Open Data in German authorities, he brought a hard drive to the administration in Berlin and got it back with data that he then put online because the authority did not have the capacity to do it. In this process Stefan realized that it proved comparatively difficult in Germany to be handed critical data voluntarily by authorities. He understood that the context was asking for different measures- that's when he turned to FOI laws. In 2010, during his master's studies in software development, he co-founded the open data movement in Germany. Looking at the international context, he saw the impact potential of platforms for requests on FOI and put his efforts into transferring the insights from those international platform projects to his own country. He founded his own platform FragDenStaat adapting the software infrastructure to the needs of the new context. From 2011 to 2016, FragDenStaat was funded as a small project of the Open Knowledge Foundation. During this time, the focus was on the direct delivery of infrastructure for requests coming from civil society. However, Stefan understood that the impact of the platform alone was limited, and that the German context needed additional systemic levers to be pulled in order to come closer to the concept of open government. Gaining more and more knowledge about the problem of a non-transparent government in a democratic society, he developed an ambitious vision for FragDenStaat and the field of FOI in Germany.

Stefan sees transparency of government spending as a cornerstone of open government. In 2013, he took over and maintained the farm subsidy database that tracks the recipients of 50 billion Euros of EU subsidies (30% of EU budget). The data is collected through web scraping and FOI requests. In 2014, he received an offer to enter data journalism (Correctiv) and decided to gain experience in the area of investigative journalism where they conducted research for society to uncover scandals and provide information around them to society. This gave Stefan new perspectives and tools to bring back to his own project. He published investigative database stories about money flows from courts, monetary benefits from pharma companies to doctors and quality-of-care homes. Medium magazine recognized him as one of the “Top 30 under 30” in 2014. In 2017, he decided to put his full attention on FragDenStaat and started developing a coherent strategy around it based on his newly gained experience.