Our previous blog post about our new report, Freedom of Information in Local Government, discussed our findings about the volume of requests received by local government. This second post explores our findings about how FOI is administered, working from information received via FOI requests to all councils and an anonymous survey of FOI officers.
Staff responsible for the administration of FOI in local government tend to hold this as one responsibility among several. FOI teams are generally embedded in larger teams, with few staff solely working on FOI. As such, FOI administration rarely appears as a specific budget item.
While this makes the data patchy, from the information that is available, staffing levels (and hence budget) seem to be responsive to the number of FOIs received by a council. Every thousand additional FOI requests increases the number of staff dealing with FOI by 0.75 (95% confidence this is between 0.35 and 1.15). Similarly, use of a case management system was associated with a greater number of requests — with the use of an organised system, and then use of specialist software being predicted by increases in the number of FOI requests received.
However, use of a case management system was not associated with any increase in the percentage of requests being replied to within the statutory limit (20 days), which suggests that differences in delays are caused elsewhere than the management of incoming FOI requests. Some requests are more complex in this respect than others, with FOI officers estimating that 38% of requests required responses from multiple departments or teams in the authority and 23% required ‘double handling’ — additional sign-off from senior or specialist staff. The number of requests appealed to internal review was low (1.4%), but within these the success rate was quite high — between 36% and 49% were successful in changing some component of the original outcome.
Councils fairly universally keep 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.
The highest availability of knowledge were figures on numbers of FOI requests received. The two areas where almost all authorities had records was the number of FOI requests received (98% recorded these figures) and how many were completed inside the statutory deadline (92%). Records of internal review were held in 87% of cases and records of appeals to ICO in 86% of cases. The questions with the most missing information related to how much of a request had been delivered. 73% had records of the number that were completely granted; 70% had records of the number that were entirely withheld; and 65% had records of partially withheld/disclosed requests.
Most councils do not publish a disclosure log (a record of FOI requests received and their responses). Adding this factor into the model used to predict missing values for the number of FOI requests received found that there was no positive or negative effect of publishing a disclosure log on the number of FOIs received. In individual responses, while many FOI Officers expressed a desire to publish more (or steps taken towards that), there was also a strong skepticism of the value of doing this, and concerns that people do not check the log before submitting their requests, meaning logs do not reduce the volume of incoming requests. Several councils that had previously run disclosure logs had discontinued them due to low usage.
This research project has helped us improve our understanding of the challenges facing FOI officers and will shape our future approaches in this area.
An upcoming blog post will talk about what we learned about using a front end interface to reduce FOI requests by searching the disclosure log. Sign up to our FOI newsletter to hear more when released.
This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/) — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.
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Image: Martin Adams
Image: Ula Kuźma