WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety, run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.
In 2022 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 109,653 Freedom of Information requests via WhatDoTheyKnow.
Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see.
What’s not quite so visible is the work that the WhatDoTheyKnow team, which is largely made up of volunteers, do behind the scenes.
Some of their most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public, archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.
The team works incredibly hard to maintain the archive in the face of challenges, including the reduction of legal risks; dealing fairly and transparently when people ask for information to be removed from the site; answering users’ questions; supporting citizens to use their rights to FOI; dealing with misuse of the service which breaches our house rules inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.
Our default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.
To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2021 to 31 October 2022.
Headline facts and figures
- 16,354,872 visits to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year.
- 16,217 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts created this year, taking the total number of accounts to 239,540. This represents an increase of 7.6% in the total number of site users since last year.
- 8,912 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2022… that’s an increase of 11.2%, making it all the more crucial that we continue to recruit volunteers to help spread the load.
- 1,381 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2022
…in the context of 109,653 requests made in the year, and a total of 867,303 requests currently published on the site.
- 171 published requests where we redacted some material in 2022
…usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
And in more detail
Requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow flagged for our attention
The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported by our users via the site for admin attention this year.
Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.
Reason for attention report Total number Vexatious 117 Not a valid request 109 Contains personal information 89 Request for personal information 85 Contains defamatory material 33 Other 642 Total* 1,075
*The number of requests flagged for attention this year is up 40% on last year. This is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Material removed from the site
The following tables show where members of the admin team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.
At WhatDoTheyKnow we have a policy of removing as little material as possible, while seeking to run the site responsibly and take different viewpoints into account. Removing substantive FOI requests and responses is a last resort and something we do very rarely. However, we act quickly to remove problematic material.
Request visibility Total number Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 2 Visible only to the request maker 1,282 Hidden from all site visitors 97 Reason for removing from public view Total number** Not a valid FOI request 1,117 Vexatious use of FOI 43 Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 221
* Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, however due to site improvements made in autumn of this year we expect to be able to provide more detailed information on this in the future.
** The number of requests hidden or removed from the site this year is up by 68% on last year. As above, this increase is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Censor rules (targeted redactions to hide the problematic part/s of a request) Total number Number of censor rules applied 746 Number of requests with censor rules applied 171 Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 165
* Censor rules are used for many purposes, including redacting problematic content and removing personal data which should not be present
Cases relating to GDPR rights
These are typically cases relating to requests to remove data published on the site as per the rights afforded under GDPR, the UK’s General Data Protection Regulations.
Right type Total number of cases* GDPR Right to Erasure 214 Data breaches by third parties 79 GDPR Right to Rectification 15 GDPR Right of Access 21 Data breach – internal** 6 GDPR Right to Object <5 Total 340
* Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.
* “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are recorded by us even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss.
High risk concerns escalated for review
Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive. Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, potential defamation concerns, safeguarding, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.
Case type* Total number Defamation 49 Data breach 40 GDPR Right to Erasure 33 Complaints 19 Safeguarding / Public harm 13 Takedown 13 GDPR Right of Access 9 Police user data requests 7 Site misuse 7 Data breach – internal 5 Other 39
* Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them. Some cases can relate to two types: for example a GDPR Right to Erasure request may also be a complaint. For the purposes of this table, such instances have been included in the counts for both concerns.
User accounts Total WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 239,540 New user accounts activated in 2022 16,217 Reason for banning users in 2022 Total Spam 2,160 Other site misuse 300 Total number of users banned in 2022 2,460 Anonymisation* Total Accounts anonymised in 2022 139
* Accounts are anonymised at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.
Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.
User data requests
Type of request Total Police/law enforcement requests for user data 7 Other requests for user data 6 Material released Total Number of requests, where court orders were produced and we provided the material as required 2
Thank you for reading
We produce this report as we demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practise it ourselves.
Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that running a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.
If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line.
Image: Meriç Dağlı
Data is at the core of everything we do at mySociety, and the better quality it is, the easier our work becomes — so the latest output from TICTeC Labs is particularly welcome. We would love everyone to know exactly what constitutes good quality data!
And, thanks to the members of the Action Lab #3 working group, now they can. They awarded a contract to the Canadian civic tech group Open North, to devise a course on Data Quality. This course is free to everyone, and we know it’ll be of huge benefit to the international civic tech community.
Available online in English and French (and hopefully with more languages to follow), the course provides users with a practical introduction to the topic, discussing key concepts and setting practical exercises.
Quality information for civic tech success
This output was the end result of our third TICTeC Labs Civic Surgery, which took place back in March 2022. That saw participants discussing the theme: ‘Accessing quality information for civic tech success: how can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?’ — it was within this session that the concept of a training course first arose.
This course uses Open North’s existing learning platform to provide training which covers:
- Understanding the importance of data quality
- Understanding the key terms when engaging with data
- Knowing how and where to find good quality data
- Recognising the barriers to accessing data and documentation
- Knowing how to evaluate the quality of a dataset
Collaborating with the Action Lab members throughout the process of planning and building the course, Open North have created an online educational resource that is suitable for a wide range of audiences. It provides a starting point for those already working with data, or those at the beginning of their journey.
Take the course
You can find out more, and take the course by signing up to Open North’s Training Center and then looking for Data Quality (D103), with the French version at La qualité des données (D103F). In fact, once your account is activated you can take any of their free courses, so take a look around and you might find some more resources to try, as well.
The climate and nature are more important than party politics — that’s the principle behind The Commitment. They are an impartial organisation working across the political spectrum to ensure that the health of the planet is prioritised, regardless of who is elected.
They invite you to make a pledge that, whatever the election, at whatever level of government, you’ll vote for the politicians who are promising to work for urgent action on the climate and nature.
When you sign up, there’s also the chance to add your reasons for doing so. These are shared with representatives as evidence that climate action is a vote winner.
Head of Political Engagement Carina Mundle-Garratt notes, “Our research shows that it only takes around 50 Commitments to get a politician’s attention — and in some cases as few as 20. Every pledge matters.”
Understanding what councils do around climate
When we heard that The Commitment uses the Climate Climate Plan Scorecards to support this work, we were eager to hear more. How did they first discover the service? Good old Googling, as it turned out.
“We came across the website on our mission to understand not only the remit and capacity of local councils”, said Carina, “but the specific action they could take to address climate change and biodiversity loss at a local level. This involved sifting through a lot of noise on the internet!”
Preparing for informed conversations
And how is the data helping with The Commitment’s mission?
“Within our Political Engagement team, they help us to engage with local councillors.
“We use them initially to help us assess the quality of a council’s climate action plan with regard to climate and nature. We then look at the individual components of the council’s score, cross-referencing it with other available information to develop relevant local requests to make of councillors. In relation to the Scorecards these may be to improve, update or execute parts of their climate action plans.
“For example, we have previously asked councillors to update their action plans to include provisions for agricultural land use, nature restoration and targets for improvements to housing stock efficiency.”
Carina continued, “Using Scorecards has really helped us to streamline our research, giving us a local starting point for assessing the performance of a council on issues of climate change and biodiversity loss and showing action plans for other comparable areas meaning that we can help join the dots and facilitate learnings between councils on good and bad practice. It really helps us to take an individualised approach to each council we work with, and by extension to each councillor we engage.”
A resource for informing followers
It’s great to see our work helping to ensure that conversations with representatives are informed and productive. And the Scorecards are useful as a resource for The Commitment’s followers, too:
“Our Commitment Gathering team use them as an impartial resource to signpost Committers to when they want to learn more about their local council”.
Unsurprisingly, then, they’re excited to see Climate Emergency UK’s recently-published methodology which has moved forward from scoring councils’ climate action plans, onto their actual action — and The Commitment plans to incorporate the new Scorecards into their work too, once they’re complete. “As we grow, we’ll seek to track and monitor more and more politicians, so Scorecards will be an invaluable resource for us in helping us to determine the progress that councils are making for more action on the climate and nature.”
If you’re interested in the work that The Commitment are facilitating, you might want to explore further. We asked Carina where to start.
“The most important thing we would ask you to do is to make your Commitment. This means that you promise to vote only for politicians who work for urgent action on the climate and nature and then you tell us (and them) why you are doing this. Your story is important.
“After that, the second thing that we would ask you to do is to spread the word and get others to make The Commitment too.
“We know many people are voting with the future of the planet at the heart of their decision, but we want to make that decision count more often than just once every five years, by regularly reminding politicians how important these issues are to their voters.”
Thanks very much to Carina for talking to us — we love to hear about this type of informed activism based on our climate data and services, and especially when they’re underpinning such a well co-ordinated campaign.
November was another busy month for our Climate programme, with progress on a number of fronts – from the return of an old friend, in the shape of the Council Climate Scorecards; to the development of two new ones, as a result of our prototyping process earlier this year. We’ve also been working hard to share our data and tools with new audiences. Here’s a quick round up:
Constituency data for climate campaigners
As Alexander mentioned in October, we’ve been working on a Beta version of platform that brings together data about MPs, constituencies, and local climate action, as part of a project with The Climate Coalition. The aim is to help campaigners at both national and local levels to understand where to focus their efforts on enabling real local action on climate goals.
This month—thanks to the involvement of not only Struan and Alexander but also Graeme, on loan from our Transparency programme—we’ve made lots of progress, adding the features and importing the datasets we’ll need for testing out the minimum viable product with target users in the New Year. I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months!
Exposing high-emissions local authority contracts
Another service that’s come out of one of our earlier prototyping weeks is ‘Contract Countdown’, which aims to give citizens advance notice of large, high-emissions local authority contracts that might be expiring in six, 12, or more months.
This November, Alexander finished developing the final pieces of a working Alpha version – including the use of real contracts from UK Contracts Finder and the Find A Tender service, and pulling in the details of local authority climate officers and councillors with climate/environment responsibilities (so we could test the idea of helping users contact these representatives).
And Siôn and I have been testing the alpha with target users – including local and national journalists, local authority climate officers and procurement officers, and local climate activists. We aim to continue getting feedback on the Alpha throughout December, and maybe January, after which point we can make a decision on whether to develop and launch a full service later in 2023.
Climate Action Scorecards 2023
Speaking of next year, preparations are already underway for next year’s follow-up to the Council Climate Scorecards project—this month saw Lucas and I work with Climate Emergency UK to design and publish their draft methodology for the assessment that will begin next year.
With CEUK’s assessors now looking at councils’ climate actions, in addition to their plans, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to understand precisely which questions your local authority will be scored on. I think we came up with a nice solution, where you can filter the list of draft questions by your local authority name or postcode, as well as by local authority type.
Sharing our data and tools
In other news, Alex updated our deprivation and urban/rural classification datasets to show relative figures for local authorities and Westminster parliamentary constituencies. We also published a local authorities lookup dataset that makes it easy to convert between the many names and codes used to identify local authorities.
If you want to use these new datasets—or any of our data in fact—Alex runs drop-in office hours on Thursdays and Fridays to talk about just that. We’re also happy to help collect or analyse climate-related data for free, as part of our work on supporting the UK’s climate data ecosystem – you can read more about that here.
Finally, Myf and Siôn in particular have continued to share and talk about our tools, and how people are using them to support local climate action, this month. Highlights include attending the Natural History Consortium’s Communicate conference; giving a hands-on workshop about all of mySociety’s tools for London’s small charities and community groups at Superhighways’ “Where’s The Power In Data” conference; and publishing a really exciting case study about how an officer at Surrey County Council used CAPE to share experiences and best practices with other similar councils elsewhere the UK.
We have prepared a draft response that explains the context of the consultation, and our current position.
We are releasing this draft before the deadline for feedback so we have time to get input from WhatDoTheyKnow users or other interested organisations/individuals.
If you have any comments on our response, please fill out this survey.
If you’d like to make your own response, you can also respond to the ICO directly. You do not have to have an opinion on all questions to make a response. The deadline for submissions is 5pm on 19th December 2022.
A summary of our planned response:
- The ICO thinking strategically about how to prioritise case work is a really useful exercise; our main concern is whether there are better, higher impact uses of time than those proposed.
- The purpose of the complaints system is not to release information, but to steer the whole FOI regime. Rather than focus on high impact requests, it would be better to look for strategic interventions to unblock common problems experienced by high impact requesters.
- Recommendation: Add a prioritisation criteria and process around administrative silence/stonewalling.
- Recommendation: Use discretion to pay special attention to complaints from authorities where there are repeated problems.
- Recommendation: Build statistical knowledge of the whole FOI system (especially internal review) to support earlier and more effective intervention.
- We disagree in principle with prioritising classes of requesters (e.g.. journalists and civil society organisations), and on practical grounds do not think this is the most effective way of achieving the ICO’s goals.
- Recommendation: reframe these as criteria for the kinds of requests from these groups that would benefit from faster treatment (e.g. time sensitive requests, stonewalling).
- Recommendation: Alternatively, redefine criteria as kinds of activity rather than requester (‘journalism’ rather than ‘journalists’). Make these more porous categories (where many requests may qualify) and only fast-track a certain percentage of them to manage the overall volume.
- Recommendation: As one of these porous categories, if the destination of the request is to a public repository (like WhatDoTheyKnow), this should be seen as a request having a higher public impact.
- The consultation reflects a view that the impact of FOI is primarily through intermediaries, making high impact requests in the public interest. We believe that the public interest needs to be viewed as wider than the result of high impact requests. There is enormous public value collectively even for privately motivated requests.
- Recommendation: Change the definition of frivolous from ‘low public interest in information requested’ to ‘low public interest in pursuing the complaint’.
Header image: Photo by Mihai Lazăr on Unsplash
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Local authorities across the UK have committed to net zero carbon emissions by a set date, and drafted the plans that show how they intend to get there – and now the really hard work has begun. With their roadmap in place, councils are beginning to translate those plans into action.
Our partners at Climate Emergency UK are starting the process of assessing the action that councils are taking toward their carbon reduction goals – see how they’ll be doing it here.
When you read any climate action plan, it becomes clear that the green transition touches practically every part of what councils do: from the vehicles they drive, to the policies they draft; the buildings they operate within; the food they source or the means by which they dispose of refuse.
New ways of doing things
A key part of a council’s transition involves reskilling both their workers and their residents, as they bring on board new, low carbon ways to tackle a multitude of daily operations. And, as every council in the country is going through much the same process, it makes sense for them to learn from one another as they do so.
That’s where our CAPE and Climate Emergency UK’s Scorecards project can come in useful, helping councils to identify others who can share their experience or embark on a new learning process together. This means that authorities need not be entirely in the dark when implementing new ideas, and the risk of spending time, money and resources on unproven solutions is minimised.
Reskilling a county
Luke McCarthy, Senior Green Skills Specialist at Surrey County Council, is one person who knows this very well. As his title implies, it’s his job to oversee green job growth across Surrey, ensuring that there are ample opportunities for all in the low-carbon services sector. Employers, training providers and residents will all need to gain new skills to bring the ambitions of Surrey’s climate action plan to fruition.
Luke explains, “A lot of my work is in ensuring we have the right green skills provision in place to meet employers’ needs, and that local residents know about these.”
His role is relatively new, so his first task has been to develop a green skills strategy for Surrey, prioritising which sectors have particular needs and what the role of a council might be in meeting this.
Finding best practice
Luke told us how CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer, and the first iteration of the Council Climate Scorecards site, which assessed councils on their plans rather than actions, have been useful in helping with these aims:
“The sites helped me find other councils doing good stuff on skills training for residents, and I discovered some example initiatives which we can either bring to Surrey or at least learn from.”
The Browse by Feature page on CAPE groups councils’ action plans by the areas that they are strongest in, including Green Jobs, Skills and Training, giving an overview from which it’s possible to dig in more deeply.
CAPE links to its sister site, Council Climate Scorecards, where each plan is given detailed marks on over 70 different requirements that go to make up a good climate action plan.
“The question I was really interested in was Does the plan identify the training and upskilling of the workforce that is necessary to transform the local economy at the scale and pace needed?”
A tool for making connections
When we built CAPE, we hoped it might lead to council staff opening discussions with their counterparts in other authorities — and that’s just what Luke went on to do.
“I’ve contacted two of the three councils I identified as doing interesting things on green skills training for residents. I’ve had a call with someone from one council who was very generous with his time and sharing of information. And another contact has shared some research reports — we’re hoping to speak soon.
“These conversations reassured me that our current thinking on key sectors and issues aligned with their focus and areas of work! I was also able to gain insights into how they’d approached understanding the green skills requirements across different sectors.”
Additionally, Luke says he picked up new ideas on how to promote roles in the low carbon/green economy to residents who might not be aware of them: “We are already planning to take steps to improve the provision of careers education, advice and guidance around the green economy, working with local partners including schools and careers advisors. The insights from other councils certainly speed up how quickly we will be able to develop solutions, or that we can do something of higher quality.”
Many thanks to Luke for letting us know of the small part we’ve played in helping forge links between councils.
Both we at mySociety, and our partners Climate Emergency UK were delighted to hear of this type of usage of our services. We hope many more councils will use our services to share ideas and consolidate their plans as we move to a greener future.
If you’re from a council, or perhaps have a wider interest in climate, don’t forget to check out Climate Emergency UK’s methodology for the next phase of the Scorecards project.
In September we heard from inspiring speakers at our kick-off Innovations in Climate Tech event; in October, we took that inspiration and let you run with it when we hosted a series of online conversations.
And now, we’re happy to present the teams who will be taking their ideas a little further with the help of our small grants.
We were looking for projects that could test a proof of concept or start something small but meaningful around climate in a local community. Proposals had to have at least one council on board.
Our successful applicants are all working in very different areas, but all of them have great potential to make a difference, and we’re excited to see what emerges from their work. So, let’s take a look at the grantees:
Lynsted Community Kitchen Garden
This collaborative food growing project in Kent will use tech to showcase sustainable approaches to gardening, with an emphasis on adapting to a changing climate. They’ll be working with Swale Borough Council.
Horticulture may be a new area for mySociety, but Lynsted Community Kitchen Garden made a compelling case for how they would collect data through a digital weather station, and use this information to develop adaptation methods which they could then share with other gardeners.
Data is data and we’re excited about its potential whether it’s around our familiar areas of democracy and transparency, or in this case precipitation, hours of sunshine and temperature! When correlated with plant growth and the amounts of watering required, this project should be providing some really tangibly useful outputs.
“We are hugely excited about using climate tech to improve the resilience of our community veg and fruit growing project to weather stress”, said LCKG. “A massive thank you to mySociety for this opportunity, and to Swale’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Officer for their support.”
Climate charity Possible is behind many innovative initiatives, including the Climate Perks scheme which mySociety subscribes to. For this project Possible will be working with Camden Borough Council to run feasibility studies around installing ground source heat pumps (GSHPs) in more challenging residential areas.
GSHPs have been heralded as a more sustainable option than the gas boilers currently found in most homes. However they are installed outdoors, presenting difficulties for tower block residents, or households with limited space or funds. Air source pumps can be affixed to the exterior of buildings, but this approach can fall foul of planning laws, and they can also be noisy.
Possible will be experimenting in Primrose Hill with a ‘shared loop’ system, in which the collector loops are installed beneath public green space to assess the technical and commercial viability of this approach.
“One fifth of UK households live in flats, while one quarter live in terraced houses, so the untapped potential of this approach is vast”, say Possible.
Sandwell Council will team up with Better Futures to research and scope a new project, Climate Interchange. This online database will showcase work undertaken to adapt to climate change challenges, from councils across the UK.
The project has the kind of user-focused approach that we heartily approve of at mySociety: it will begin with asking officers in councils across the country what they need, before creating a searchable project database of solutions and case studies.
“By opening up data and sharing we want to democratise climate adaptation solutions, putting actionable insights into the hands of those on the front line in communities and local government”, says Better Futures’ Rob Hale.
There are clear parallels here with the Scorecards work our partners at Climate Emergency UK are engaged in, and we hope that the two projects will benefit one another while providing richer resources to councils and the public.
We’ll check in with our grantees to see what they achieve and what they learn along the way, so do watch this space for updates.
With Twitter’s future uncertain, we encourage friends and followers to subscribe to our newsletters, or to use the RSS feed which you can find on the right hand side of this blog page.
Image: Lynsted Community Kitchen Garden
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Freedom of Information is a right that gives people power over public authorities. The case for FOI is often made on the high profile investigations and the public disclosure of scandals. But the value can be also seen in the quiet success of ordinary citizens being able to access information from the public authorities that hold power over their lives.
We ran a poll with Opinium to find out how widespread the use of Freedom of Information is. We found that 10% of UK adults have used FOI to try and get information they thought would be useful to themselves, their community or wider society. When including people who made a request as part of their work, this figure goes up to 14%.
Giving evidence to Parliament, the former Information Commissioner said that “one in 1,000 citizens in the UK will file a Freedom of Information Act request, but journalists are standing in their shoes. It is through journalists that the public can understand or get to know why decisions are being made on their behalf. Journalists, public interest researchers and advocacy groups are important requesters”. This is an important point about the value of Freedom of Information even if it is only used by a few, but based not just on our polling but the ICO’s own polling, this figure is 100 times too small. Freedom of Information is not a niche right, or mainly used by journalists, but has been used by millions of people.
Alongside a team of volunteers, mySociety runs WhatDoTheyKnow, a website that helps people make freedom of information requests (so far over 850,000 requests), and displays the results of those requests in public, so more people have access to the results.
Through running this website, we’re very aware of the many different ways Freedom of Information is used by people, in ways that are not captured by official FOI statistics. We want more and more people to be able to use their information rights, and we want more and more of them to be using WhatDoTheyKnow so that what they find out is available to all.
We want to be doing more to support and advocate for people using their right to know, and see it as our role to be a voice for our users, and this large group of ordinary FOI users, in arguments about the future of Freedom of Information.
We’re proud of what we’re able to do with a small budget, but we want to do more. If you want to help us do that, there’s a number of things you can do:
- If you’ve benefited from Freedom of Information, or support our mission to make information more accessible, please consider making a regular or one-off donation to support our work.
- If you’re not able to donate now, please join our newsletter so we can keep you up to date with our work and campaigns.
- If you’re a journalist, researcher or campaigner, have a look at our pro service, which for £10 a month provides a wealth of features to help make and manage requests.
- If you’re interested in volunteering time, WhatDoTheyKnow as a day-to-day service is run by a dedicated group of volunteers. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can learn more on the volunteering page.
To read more about the numbers behind the polling, and how we validated it, please see this companion blog post.
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Header image: Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash
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This blog post is a companion post to a shorter blog post explaining the significance of this polling to mySociety’s FOI work.
We know very little about the real picture of Freedom of Information use because there are not comprehensive statistics. Information on users of Freedom of Information is very hard to come by. We have some information through a survey we run on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we know this only covers the minority of requesters who use our service.
Knowing about this picture is important to us for several reasons.
The first reason is one of the big benefits to society of WhatDoTheyKnow is that we make public information easier to discover without explicitly asking for it. If we can know more about how many FOIs are being made in total, we can have a better sense of what proportion of this information we’re publishing (based on some of the maths below, It’s probably somewhere from 5-10%).
The second reason is that conversations about the pros and cons of freedom of information can be dominated by the problems journalists experience in requesting information from the central government. This is a big and important problem, but it shifts the general understanding of the impact freedom of information has had on our society. Through WhatDoTheyKnow, we get a glimpse of a bigger world when citizens are making requests that affect them and their communities – but we don’t see everything, and getting more information about this is vital in informing how we approach our policy and campaigning work.
As part of a “Giving Tuesday”, Opinium gave five survey questions (for a national representative survey panel) to a number of charities, including mySociety. We used one of these questions to find out how many people had made a freedom of information request. The rest of this blog post explains the results of that survey.
The question we asked
Our data comes from an Opinium survey of a representative selection of UK adults that ran between 30th November – 3rd December 2021. Respondents were asked:
The Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to request a large range of information from public authorities (government departments, local authorities, NHS trusts, schools, etc). These are called Freedom of information requests. Have you ever made a Freedom of Information request?
Respondents had the option of responding:
- No I haven’t made a request, and I am not aware of Freedom of Information
- No, I am aware of freedom of information but haven’t used it
- Yes, as part of my job
- Yes, to find out something that might be useful for me personally
- Yes, to find out something that might be useful to my community/society in general
- I’m not sure / NA
mySociety/Opinium polling in 2021 found that 10% of UK adults have used FOI to try and get information they thought would be useful to themselves, their community or society. When including people who made a request as part of their work, this figure goes up to 14%. When looking just at personal use, the figure is 6%. Overall, a majority of people (62%) had either used FOI or were otherwise aware of it.
There was a small gender difference in both awareness and use of FOI, with men having higher awareness than women (68% to 57%), and greater use (16% to 11%). Our polling found that the 18-34 age group were the least aware of Freedom of Information (55%), but were also the age group most likely to have made an FOI request (25%). This is possibly partially explained by a much higher rate of using it as part of employment in younger demographics (12% compared to 6% overall), but the number using it for other reasons is still notably higher (some more discussion of this further down). Looking at respondents by nation/region, there was a less than expected proportion of people who made a request in Wales (6%) and Northern Ireland (2%), but a greater number who made a request in London (28%).
Validating these figures
When I first saw some of these figures, I was a little surprised and wanted to explore some different ways to validate the number.
Digging into it, I found that other polls asking different versions of the question show a similar figure, and back of the envelope calculations based on known statistics suggest the basic ballpark is right – there are millions, rather than hundreds of thousands, of people who have used the Freedom of Information Act.
Part of the reason this figure might be surprising is that our statistical picture of Freedom of Information is so poor, we have very little idea of the scale of it – and what we do know is misleading as to that scale. For instance, a recent Financial Times article, when highlighting the (bad) trend of how central governments are withholding more and more information requested, falls into the trap of assuming that this picture represents all freedom of information requests. But departments and ministries are not the only public bodies that receive Freedom of Information requests. In fact there’s good reason to believe they receive only a small percentage of the overall total.
Most FOI requests in the UK are not covered by official statistics. In 2017, we did a meta-FOI to ask local authorities about the number of FOIs they received. We calculated around 467k were made that year, compared to 46k made in that same year to the central government. From running WhatDoTheyKnow, we know that only 10% of requests made through the site go to the central government departments that are covered in the statistics.
As the number of Freedom of Information requests is much higher than the official statistics show, this helps explain why the number of requesters can be far higher than expected. Not only are there many more public bodies outside central government, but these bodies are closer to people’s day to day lives, and so a broader range of people might want information, and find it through the Freedom of Information Act.
Polling by the UK’s Information Commissioners
The clearest reassurance of the 10%ish figure is that a similar poll found a very similar number. Polling by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2021 found 49% were aware of “the right to request information held by public organisations”. This is lower than our equivalent question, where 62% had either made use of FOI, or were aware of it and not used it. However in the same 2021 survey, 10% of respondents to the ICO’s survey said they had already made use of “the right to request information held by public organisations”. In the previous year this figure was 12%. This figure is very close to our figure of 10-14% making use of FOI, and it is reassuring to see something in this ball park come from a different survey company.
Both these surveys might be wrong of course, but polling by the Scottish Information Commission in 2022 found an even higher number. This poll found 36% of a weighted sample of Scottish respondents had at some time “asked for information from a Scottish public body by letter, email or online form”. 18% said they did this annually or more frequently. This is a much higher number than the other survey. There are several possible reasons why.
- There is a genuine difference in awareness and use of rights between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
- The way this question is phrased should also include requests for personal information (subject access requests) as well as freedom of information requests.
- This version of the question does not ask about a right, just if someone did something that might have engaged the Freedom of Information Act. This might catch people who get through the process unaware they may have benefited or made use of information rights.
How should we interpret this? There is no strong reason to believe the use of rights is significantly different in Scotland. The Scottish figure was 63% awareness of freedom of Information, which is higher than the ICO UK-wide, but in the same general area as our UK-wide polling, which did not show a significant difference for Scotland. Similarly, our survey found a statistically significant difference in use of FOI by respondents in London and did not find this for Scotland.
As for subject access requests, we actually know from the (really good) statistics recorded in Scotland that around one-quarter of information requests are subject access requests. So even applying this correction, this question is still suggesting around double the figure from our survey. This is likely to be part of the explanation, but is not all of that.
This leaves the possibility that by not prompting about rights or freedom of information, this is capturing a set of people who are coming into contact with information rights issues without noticing it. It is possible to exercise your freedom of information rights without being aware you are doing so. My first freedom of information request was made this way as a student, asking OFCOM if they held some information from the Broadcasting Complaints Commissions’s archive. If you email your local council wanting to know something, it should be processed under the Freedom of Information Act, even if you were unaware of it. This is likely to include some interactions with authorities that will have existed before FOI (and information may have been made available) but which is now covered formally through the Freedom of Information process. For example, a request for library opening times could be processed as an FOI request, but may well have been answered before the FOI act existed.
If this is an explanation for a higher number in response to the OSIC survey, it might also explain the higher proportion of 18-34 respondents in our poll who had used Freedom of Information for personal reasons. Contact with public bodies for information is more likely now to be by email, and trigger the formal FOI process. There is more to explore here around possible shifting patterns of first contact with FOI.
Back of the envelope calculation based on WhatDoTheyKnow statistics
The relevant polling we have is supportive of our poll not being outrageously high. The other approach is to try a very back of the envelope approach based on known statistics to see if this is a reasonable amount of FOIs to have been made.
Based on previous research by mySociety and the Constitution Unit, we have estimates for the number of FOIs made to local authorities in 2005-2010 and 2017. Filling in the extra years between those dates, extending forward, and doubling the number (roughly 48% of requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow are to local authorities – but we don’t know if this applies more generally or not), this gives roughly 11 million FOI requests all time. On WhatDoTheyKnow there are an average of six requests per user (again, don’t know if this applies more generally) – so applying that ratio gives roughly 2 million requesters all time. A figure of 10% of UK adults would expect roughly 4.3 million requesters all time.
To get the two numbers more into sync some combination of the following could be true:
- More local government requests have been made all time than this assumes.
- Not impossible given this is based on three data points (all of which are incomplete surveys and require some amount of extrapolation).
- A greater proportion of requests being made to non-local government bodies than happens in WhatDoTheyKnow
- No way of knowing this without a complete statistical picture.
- OSIC statistics show a higher 60% statistic in Scotland being made to local government.
- Given there are many more non-local government public authorities in the rest of the UK, it is reasonable to guess it’s closer to the WhatDoTheyKnow statistic of 50%, but could it be lower than that?
- The ratio between requesters and requests is different outside of WhatDoTheyKnow.
- Arguments both ways, WhatDoTheyKnow is missing all the ‘not intentionally using FOI’ one-offs, but also some of the bulk requesters who don’t want the results to be public on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Given so many of these numbers are made-up or trying to generalise from WhatDoTheyKnow to all uses of FOI, there is no real reason not to prefer the figure two separate polls agree on. That said, it is reassuring it is in the right order of magnitude (still talking millions rather than hundreds of thousands of FOI users). This question would be helped by a complete statistical picture of FOI in the UK, and to be honest, that would be so useful, it’d be fine if it proved our current numbers wrong.
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Demographic difference graphs
The following graphs show the demographic split on aspects of the FOI polling. Where the percentage for a category is higher than would be expected statistically if there was no difference between groups, it is highlighted in blue. If it is smaller than would be expected, it is highlighted in red. For non-highlighted categories there is insufficient data to say the category differs from the general average.
A starting point for making civic tech more accessible
At our second Civic Tech Surgery in February 2022, we discussed ensuring that civic tech is accessible – how can we lead and popularise best practice? The subsequent Action Lab working group agreed to commission the creation of a toolkit or resource to support civic tech practitioners in making their work more accessible.
The subgrant was awarded to Technoloxia to create a beginners’ guide to accessibility. Technloxia are a training provider who specialise in digital accessibility for different audiences including civil society organisations and tech practitioners. The team working on this project included people with disabilities and trained practitioners, who worked with a focus group of users with different accessibility needs to review the material and provide feedback.
With this guide, Technoloxia look to provide a simple primer and introduce the subject while staying practical and action-oriented. This guide is in no way exhaustive but is a starting point for a larger conversation.
Step-by-step guides to better accessibility
The guide starts by explaining basic concepts and principles and then presents best practices by examining case studies. After each case study, the guide highlights a few potential challenges and how best to deal with these. It provides you with questions to ask to check whether your work is accessible, and always centres the people using the services, reminding us that accessibility goes beyond ‘technical accessibility’ to the ways in which we communicate and interact around our work.
An accessible accessibility guide
The guide is freely available on our website, to download as a PDF and as an audio file to increase the accessibility of the information itself. Please do download it and/ or pass it on to any other contacts who might find it useful: this guide will have most impact when it is widely used.
TICTeC Labs is our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion – Civic Tech Surgery – on a topic affecting the civic tech community, followed by an Action Lab, a working group who meet to discuss the challenges and commission some work to help provide solutions. To find out more about the TICTeC Labs programme and the work being produced following the series of Civic Tech Surgeries, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.