Oxfordshire Director of Legal

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Nearly half a million FOI requests made to councils each year: research

Around 467,000 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are now made to local councils every year — almost double a previous estimate by UCL’s Constitution Unit in 2010, research by mySociety has found.

The total is ten times the number of FOI requests sent to central government.

In addition to establishing the number of FOI requests made to councils, the key conclusions in the report, Freedom of Information in Local Government by Alex Parsons and Dr. Rebecca Rumbul, are:

  • Councils have relatively universal records on the number of requests received, and time taken to reply - but have fewer records on the volume of information disclosed, or on the status of appeals.
  • Approximately 35%-50% of internal reviews in local government result in a change to the original outcome.
  • Staff responsible for the administration of FOI in local government tend to hold FOI as one responsibility among several.
  • FOI teams tend to be embedded in larger teams with few staff solely working on FOI. As such, FOI administration rarely appears as a specific budget item. Staffing levels devoted to FOI appear to increase in correlation with an increase in the volume of FOI Requests received.
  • Most councils (66%) use some form of case management system, however there is no standard or universally adopted software for FOI case management, and the quality and operability of these systems varies significantly between local authorities.
  • Most councils (64%) do not publish a disclosure log. Councils that receive higher numbers of FOI requests are more likely to publish a log, but accounting for other drivers of reports, there is no positive or negative effect of publishing a log.
  • Replicating this exercise every year would be "prohibitively difficult", however a centralised repository of the statistics disclosures required by the new code of practice would make tracking change over time (over a sector or individual authority) more straightforward and unlock more value from those disclosures.

Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck College said: “This report gives us a first comprehensive picture of what’s happening with FOI at the local level. It shows that request numbers have indeed continued to grow and that local authority staff face a series of obstacles in dealing with requests.

“Above all, it underlines the importance of FOI as a tool of local democracy.”

6% of all FOI requests to local government in the UK (16.8% for central government) were made through mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow, a website set up in 2008 which helps the public to submit requests and publishes responses for anyone to access online. The site holds the results of over half a million FOI requests and is visited by six million users a year.

Last year mySociety worked with Hackney Council in 2018 to create software to identify potential duplicate requests before they are made, and signpost the user to where the information they seek has already been published.

This is now available to other councils as the service FOI for Councils, and mySociety is currently working with several UK authorities on prototype processes to enable the smoother handling of FOI and Subject Access requests for council staff.

Mark Cridge, mySociety’s chief executive, said: “This report demonstrates that people are increasingly active as citizens, using their rights to make more FOI requests than ever in the UK. It also highlights that the majority of requests are not publicly available or easily searchable — missing an obvious means by which to realise efficiencies.

“mySociety wants to work in collaboration with more councils to ensure that  requests are made in the open, and the work done by FOI officers goes further so more people can benefit from public information being released.”