With the help of other members of the team who look after mySociety’s Freedom of Information (FOI) site WhatDoTheyKnow.com I have used statistics released by the Ministry of Justice to look at the proportion of FOI requests being made via the site.
- In the first quarter of 2009 8.5% of all requests made to central government departments were made using WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
- One in five FOI requests to the Home Office (122 of 643) were made via the site.
Breakdown by Organisation for Q1 2009
WDTK = WhatDoTheyKnow; Table lists bodies monitored by Ministry of Justice; Source for total FOI request statistics : Statistics for Q1 2009 (released on the 25th of June 2009).
In order to compare the statistics from WhatDoTheyKnow with those published by the Ministry of Justice it was necessary to consider the agencies run by various departments which the WhatDoTheyKnow lists separately but the Ministry of Justice generally include in the department’s figures.
Only a tiny fraction of the public bodies subject to FOI have their performance monitored centrally. All state schools (apart from academies), NHS hospitals and PCTs, Police Forces and Councils are subject to the Act yet there are no central statistics on the number of requests made to them, or how well they handle them. There are many tens of thousands of bodies subject to the FOI Act in the UK, the Ministry of Justice only monitors 44. Complaints about the performance, with respect to their duties under the FOIA, of any body subject to FOI can be referred to the Information Commissioner.
Of particular note is the large number of requests made to the Health and Safety Executive. The MoJ report states: “The Health and Safety Executive is the only monitored body to have received more than 1,000 requests during each quarter since the Act was implemented”. The HSE’s disclosure log contains relatively few documents. The statistic may be related to the fact the HSE appears to outsource its FOI compliance to Connaught Group (it asks requestors to write to a @connaught.plc.uk email address). Perhaps it would be possible to phrase an FOI request in such a way as to find out.
The Scottish Government has released a publication entitled: Information request handling in the Scottish Government Quarterly Statistics Bulletin Q1: January to March 2009. It reveals that 423 FOI requests were received by the Scottish Government Q1 2009. The corresponding bodies listed on WhatDoTheyKnow.com are listed below, along with the number of requests made via the site in Q1 2009:
- Scottish Government 12
- Historic Scotland 1
- Transport Scotland 1
- Accountant in Bankruptcy 0
- HM Inspectorate of Education 1
- Student Awards Agency for Scotland 0
- Social Work Inspection Agency 0
- Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency 0
- Scottish Public Pensions Agency 0
In total 15 out of 423 requests were made via WhatDoTheyKnow (3.5%). This statistic does not really reflect the extensive Scottish coverage of WhatDoTheyKnow, it does not take into account bodies such as Edinburgh Council, Glasgow Council and The Scottish Parliament and many more.
Advantages of WhatDoTheyKnow
There are many advantages of using WhatDoTheyKnow.com to make FOI requests including:
- Information released is made available on the internet for others.
- This can reduce time and expense incurred by authorities dealing with duplicate requests.
- It can make the information more easily accessible to others, eg. via an internet search
- Third party proof a request has been made is available to requesters. There is evidence online of any non-compliance with the FOI act.
- It can be shown that information released actually came from the authority.
- The site makes it easier for requests to be made (users don’t have to look up email addresses) and enables users to keep track of the progress of requests. This can be of particular importance to those making many requests, eg. for a survey
Advantages of Freedom of Information
I believe Freedom of Information in public authorities results in cheaper and more effective government, as transparency can:
- Deter corruption, fraud and malpractice as those tempted will be aware they are likely to be found out.
- Ensure a healthy balance of power between the individual and the state.
- Enable those in power to be held to account for their actions.
- Bring wider commercial, economic benefits as information previously held by the state becomes available to all.