Understanding Freedom of Information in local government

Over the last year, mySociety’s research team has been trying to build a picture of how Freedom of Information functions in local government. This research project became our report into FOI in Local Government (which can be read in full here).

One of the key questions for this research project is how many FOI requests are received by local government.

We believe that use of WhatDoTheyKnow has benefits beyond people who submit requests because requests made through the site are available publicly — increasing the sum of knowledge available to all. Given this, a good metric for us to understand is what percentage of all information being released through FOI is being stored on WhatDoTheyKnow. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data in this area that allows us to make a clear comparison.

The Cabinet Office release annual statistics about FOI requests made to central government, which can be used for comparison. In 2017, 16.8% of requests sent to central government were sent via WhatDoTheyKnow — but this represents a very small volume of all use of WhatDoTheyKnow. 88% of FOI requests were sent to public authorities outside  central government, suggesting that the majority of FOI activity is elsewhere, but there is no official figure of the total number of FOI requests received by all public bodies.

In 2010, UCL’s Constitution Unit estimated a figure for all local authorities in England of 197,000 FOI requests received. We wanted to understand if this was still a good baseline for FOI requests to local government and gain new understanding of local authorities beyond England.

To do this, we sent an FOI request to every local authority (except those in Scotland, who publish these figures in a central repository) asking for a set of FOI statistics for the year 2017.

This presented an immediate set of problems. There was a split in how authorities understood ‘2017’, with internal statistics recorded in a split of financial and calendar year — a choice that has a demonstrable difference in the volume of FOIs recorded that year. A minority of councils did not respond to the FOI requests – which unaddressed would lead to an under-count in the total number of FOI requests.

To correct these problems, using the requests that were returned and other sources of public information, we constructed a model to address the issue of the split in recording year and predict a range of values for councils that didn’t return data.

The result of this is an estimate of 468,780 FOI requests received in the calendar year 2017. There is a 95% confidence this value falls between 467,587 and 469,975 (range of 2,387).  

On average an individual council receives around 1,120 requests in a given year. But as the graph below shows, this has substantial variation:


And the type of council has substantial impact on the number of requests recorded — with London boroughs receiving over three times as many requests as authorities in Northern Ireland.

Authority type Average FOI requests
Northern Ireland authorities 532.2
Non-metropolitan districts 799.4
Welsh authorities 1133.5
County councils 1331.0
Unitary authority 1346.9
Metropolitan districts 1417.2
City of London 1521.1
Scottish authorities 1536.2
London borough 1815.0


What does this mean for WhatDoTheyKnow? Comparing totals, the 28,282 requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow in 2017 represented 6% of all FOI requests made to local authorities. Similarly, there is a lot of variation across authorities some councils have around 2% of requests start on WhatDoTheyKnow, others have around 13%.  This shows that the overwhelming majority of requests to local authorities are made through other means.

Part two of this blog post discusses what we learned about the administration of FOI from this research. You can read the full report online, or download as a pdf.

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.

Image: Ula Kuźma