Service deliveryDigital Customer ServiceMassive growth in FOI requests to local authorities

Massive growth in FOI requests to local authorities

New research from civic tech experts mySociety has found that people are being increasingly active as citizens, using their rights to make more FOI requests

Local authorities have received a big increase in Freedom of Information (FOI) requests over the past decade.

A new report, Freedom of Information in Local Government by Alex Parsons and Dr Rebecca Rumbul of mySociety, has found that around 467,000 FOI requests are now made to local councils every year — almost double a previous estimate by UCL’s Constitution Unit in 2010, and ten times the number of FOI requests sent to central government.

A total of 6% of all requests to local government in the UK (16.8% for central government) were made through mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow, a website which helps the public to submit requests and publishes responses for anyone to access online, thus increasing the information available to all.

WhatDoTheyKnow is a website run by mySociety which enables citizens and campaigners to make FOI requests in the UK. It covers more than 19,000 public authorities in the UK and has created a massive online archive of public information (more than half a million requests), all free to access. It is driven by mySociety’s Open Source platform Alaveteli, which has also been implemented in more than 25 countries worldwide by groups and individuals running sites.

Running since 2008, the website holds the results of over half a million requests and is visited by 6 million users a year.

mySociety carries out regular research into the impact of civic technology and shares its results with civic tech practitioners worldwide through reports and conferences.

While the Cabinet Office releases figures on the volume of FOI requests to central government, there is no equivalent statistic officially produced for other areas of the public sector.

Dr. Ben Worthy of Birkbeck College says: “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.”

Growing demand for information

To help address the growing demand for information, mySociety teamed up 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.

mySociety’s chief executive, Mark Cridge, says: “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.”

Last year, Anna Assassa, CEO at technology consultancy Tisski, discussed what are the challenges around maintaining compliance and what existing technology can deliver immediate improvements to FOI systems and processes for local authorities.

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