FoI Act 2000: The first six months

A report has been published which looks at local authorities’ experiences of complying with the FOI Act from January to June 2005. The research was carried out by the Constitution Unit on behalf of the Improvement and Development Agency:

"At the end of June 2005, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 had been fully in force for six months. In order to understand how local authorities were coping with FOI compliance, the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) commissioned the Constitution Unit to carry out a study about local authority FOI practitioners' experiences responding to FOI requests and handling other compliance matters. The report was completed on 30 September 2005. IDeA intends to use the analysis of the results as a basis for guidance to authorities on making their FOI request response processes more efficient and effective. IDeA also intends to use the study to make an assessment of the resource and cost implications of compliance."

Summary of key points

• This study reports on local authorities’ experience in implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act) in the first six months, from January to June 2005. The survey was based on substantive responses from 200 of the 387 local authorities in England.

• In the first six months, district councils received on average around 50 requests, and larger councils (county, metropolitan, unitary, and London boroughs) around 150. The monthly volume of requests declined over the first six months, but the complexity of requests has grown. Only about 8 per cent of requests were refused, and about one third of these were subject to internal reviews as a result of requester dissatisfaction.

• Private individuals were the largest single category of requesters (60%), with businesses the second largest (almost 20%), and journalists third (10%). Many officials were unhappy about the use of FOI by business.

• The average time spent by officials handling a request was 12 hours for districts and 14 hours for other councils, although a small number of complex requests, mostly from local pressure groups and journalists, took considerably longer. Two thirds of all councils charged no fees to applicants. Of the remainder who did charge, charges were mainly for disbursements (copying and postage).

• The biggest problems of compliance were applying exemptions, including the public interest test; distinguishing between FOI and EIR regimes; persuading colleagues to comply with timescales and use request tracking systems; and coping within stretched resources, sometimes with no budget and with staff allocated to FOI on a temporary basis.

• One half of all local authorities have one full-time equivalent member of staff working on FOI; 15% per cent have more than five. FOI officers frequently combine it with responsibility for data protection, EIRs and records management.

• Recognising the importance of better records management is reported as one of benefits of FOI. Other benefits are better engagement with the public and the media, identifying stakeholders and their concerns, and identifying problems in service delivery. FOI had also helped to increase co-operation and communication between departments.

• Suggestions for good practice included seeking to ensure the continuing positive involvement of senior management in the context of the relationship of the council with the public and positive development of the publication scheme.

• In terms of how central bodies could be more helpful, the main suggestions were clearer guidance on what information is environmental; combining the FOI and EIR codes of practice and establishing a common fees regime; and rationalising the overlapping guidance on exemptions from the DCA, DEFRA and the ICO. Many saw the value councils could gain from a local authority version of the central government clearing house.

Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000: the first six months: The experience of local authorities in England (PDF, 774KB, IDeA Knowledge website)