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									      Freedom of Information in the first six months:
            The FOI practitioner’s perspective


Third Annual Information Conference for the Public Sector:
          FOI Live 2005 Delegate Survey Report




                       1 September 2005




                Christopher Bettiss and Sarah Holsen
                        The Constitution Unit
Executive Summary
On 16 June 2005 at the Third Annual Information Conference for the Public Sector: FOI Live 2005
FOI practitioners from central government, local government, the NHS, universities and other
organizations subject to the FOI Act completed a survey of their experiences with FOI through the
first half of the year. The Constitution Unit designed and distributed the survey with the sole aim of
‘taking the pulse’ of the FOI community and strove to hear from as many conference-attending
practitioners as possible. Because no sampling techniques were used, findings cannot be claimed
to be statistically significant. 133 of a total 347 delegates filled in the questionnaire.

The survey results indicate that the majority of the respondents were the primary FOI practitioners
for their organization and that nearly all respondents had duties other than FOI compliance, mostly
in the areas of data protection and/or the Environmental Information Regulations.

Over half of the respondents reported that their organization received between 1 and 100 requests
for information between 1 January and 16 June 2005, though a fairly large number received up to
300 requests for information. Best estimates of the FOI practitioners surveyed demonstrate that a
large percentage of requesters were either private individuals or journalists and that the majority of
requests dealt with information concerning management and the use of public funds or government
policies and plans.

Most practitioners said that they have infrequently refused to disclose information (either partially
or fully), though a fair number have refused between 20% and 50% of time. The majority also
claimed to have met the statutory 20-day deadline ‘most of the time’. Respondents reported that
the three most difficult issues when responding to requests are applying the public interest test,
figuring out whether their authority holds the information and, if so, where it is located, and
coordinating with sections of the organization that hold the requested information.

Far more practitioners agreed than disagreed that their authority has sufficient resources to handle
FOI requests. Most FOI practitioners also agreed that key FOI staff at their organisation have had
adequate training in FOI compliance. The single most frequently cited source of advice when
dealing with difficult or complex requests was colleagues, followed closely by the DCA and senior
management. Most FOI practitioners would like to see updated guidance on balancing the public
interest test. Over half of the surveyed FOI practitioners subscribe to a support/advice network,
though no single network is overwhelmingly subscribed. Finally, most practitioners felt that the
attitude toward FOI in their organization was, at the time of the survey, positive.

Methodology
The questionnaire was written by Constitution Unit staff and placed in 347 conference delegates’
information packs1. Conference chair Robert Hazell explained the survey project on the morning of
the event and asked eligible delegates to fill in the questionnaire by mid-afternoon that day. Since
the objective of the survey was to obtain as broad a picture of FOI practitioners’ experiences with
the new legislation as possible, there were no strict rules about participation (i.e. more than one
representative per organization was allowed to fill out survey). However, eligibility was limited to
those who work on FOI compliance matters at organizations that are subject to the act. Anonymity
was assured and, as an incentive, respondents were offered the chance to win one of three bottles
of champagne during a drawing between conference sessions in the afternoon. One hundred
thirty-three delegates completed the survey.

1
  45% of the FOI practitioners who attended the conference (159) represented central government departments, 17% (58)
work for local authorities, 16% (54) for public bodies (NDPBs) or quangos, 7% (24) for universities, 5% (17) for the
NHS, and 10% (34) for ‘other departments’. There may be overlap between categories, as those who checked ‘other’
might have belonged in one of the specific categories but did not report as such. In particular, there appears to have
been confusion about the meaning of ‘public body’, which, for the purposes of the survey, was meant to include NDPBs
(non-departmental public bodies).


                                                                                                                   2
Categories of questions

The survey was designed to capture FOI practitioners’ general experiences and opinions of
working with the legislation since it went fully into force on 1st January 2005. Questions focused on
the logistics of FOI implementation in each respondent’s organization and sought to identify:

•  whether the practitioner has duties besides FOI compliance tasks;
•  the number, sources and types of requests received;
•  how many requests result in refusals to disclose, how often deadlines are met, and which
   difficulties practitioners have with compliance;
• whether tracking software is useful, whether organisations provide adequate resources for
   coping with FOI compliance, and whether training for compliance has been sufficient;
• to whom practitioners turn for advice and guidance;
• whether the attitude toward FOI within the organization is positive.
(For a copy of the survey questions, please see Appendix A.)

Results
The principal survey results are presented in graph form. Interesting and anomalous findings are
listed in bullet point form below each graph2.

1). Respondents and their organizations

•      61% (82) of respondents reported that they are the primary FOI practitioner at their
       organization.


                                For which type of organization do you work?


               Central government department

                          Public body or quango

                                   Local authority

                                              NHS

                                        University

                                            Other

                                                     0%      10%       20%       30%   40%   50%
                                                             Percentage of respondents


•      32% (43) of respondents work for central government departments, 18% (25) for a public body
       or quango, 17% (22) for local authorities, 11% (15) for NHS departments and 5% (6) for
       universities.

•      17% (22) work for ‘other’ organizations – Whilst the majority of these were single mentions, 6%
       (8) were police departments and two were media organizations.


2
    Percentages are followed by the actual number of responses in parentheses.

                                                                                                    3
•   The large percentage of survey respondents from central government departments can be
    explained in part by the fact that a large proportion of those who attended the conference
    represented central government departments.


                As an FOI practitioner, which responsibilities do you have besides
                                    processing FOI requests?


                                  I only work on FOI

                                     Data protection

               Environmental Information Regulations

                              Records management

                                              Other

                                                       0%   20%   40%     60%    80%    100%
                                                            Percentage of respondents



(Respondents were asked to tick as many additional tasks as apply to their professional remit.)

•   Only 9% (12) of respondents work solely on FOI.

•   72% (96) of practitioners who work on freedom of information also work on data protection,
    while 53% (71) also deal with EIR requests. FOI officers/records managers made up 44% (59)
    of responses to this question.

•   The ‘other’ category yielded other broad areas of professional responsibility. Information
    governance was cited by 17% (23) of respondents, legal affairs by 8% (10) and corporate
    governance by 5% (7).




                                                                                                  4
2). Requesters and requests


                      To the best of your knowledge, how many requests has your
                               authority received since 1st January 2005?



             More than 1000


                  501-1000


                   301-500


                   101-300


                     1-100


                              0%     10%         20%         30%         40%      50%
                                           Percentage of respondents



•   Close to half of all respondents – 41% (55) – reported that their department received between
    one and 100 requests between January and June. Only five practitioners reported that their
    organization had received more than 1000 requests for information by mid-June.

•   Of those that reported receiving more than 1000 requests for information, two work for central
    government departments, two for police departments and one for a public body/quango.

•   Local government practitioners generally received between 101 and 300 requests for
    information, with a range from 1 to 500.

•   87% (13) of respondents from NHS organisations and 100% (6) of those from universities
    reported receiving between one and 100 requests for information.




                                                                                                5
                   To the best of your knowledge, what are the main categories of FOI
                                     requester to your organization?



                             Private Individual

                                     Journalist

                Business employee/executive

                            Academic/student

            Interest or pressure group or NGO

                                        Lawyer

               Politician/politician's assistant

                    Civil servant/public official

                                          Other


                                                    0%   20%    40%    60%      80%     100%
                                                         Percentage of Respondents



(Respondents were asked to list, to the best of their knowledge, the top three categories of FOI
requesters. Because the act is requester blind [i.e. requesters do not have to identify in which
capacity they make their requests], answers to this question can only be best estimates.)

•   By far, the two categories of requesters most frequently mentioned were private individuals
    (reported by 118 practitioners) and journalists (reported by 100).

•   Coming in a distant third, fourth and fifth were business employees/executives (36),
    academics and students (34) and NGOs/pressure groups (32).

•   Sixty-four percent (14) of respondents from local authorities reported receiving FOI requests
    from business employees or executives, twice the percentage of any other category of
    organisation.




                                                                                               6
                                   What types of information are being requested?

                                     Management/use of public funds

                                        A government's plans/policies

                                        Information about a third party

                       Other personal information about the requester

                                               A government contract

                                     A regulatory or licensing decision

                                         Other business transactions

        Individual's employment at a government department or agency

                          A refusal or government services or benefits

                                                                 Other

                                                                          0%   10%    20%      30%      40%      50%   60%
                                                                                     Percentage of respondents



(Respondents were asked to list, to the best of their knowledge, the top three types of information
being requested).

•   ‘Management/use of public funds’ was selected by 56% (75) of respondents and government
    policies/plans by 50% (67).

•   Respondents working for police departments reported that requesters often seek specific
    information relating to police procedure or to the resolution of police cases.

3). Processing requests


                                 Approximately how many of your organization's
                                responses to FOI requests involve a partial or full
                                              refusal to disclose?


                        Less than 10%


                                  10-20%


                                  20-50%


                               Over 50%


                                            0%          10%          20%       30%     40%       50%

                                                           Percentage of respondents



•   41% (55) of practitioners reported that their organization/department refused or partially
    refused to disclose information less than 10% of the time.


                                                                                                                             7
•   16% (21) refused to disclose information over 50% of the time.

•   22% (29) of central government department respondents stated that they partially or fully
    refused to disclose information over 50% of the time.

•   80% (12) of NHS departments and 64% (14) of local authorities refused to disclose information
    ‘less than 10%’ of the time.


                        On average, how often does your organization meet the
                                      statutory 20-day deadline?

                                       Always (100% of the time)

                        Most of the time (75-99% of the time)

                                       Often (50-74% of the time)

               Less than half the time (25-49% of the time)

                           Rarely (Less than 25% of the time)

                                                                     Never

                                                                               0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70%

                                                                                    Percentage of respondents


•   The overwhelming majority of respondents – 84% (112) – reported that their organizations
    meet the statutory 20-day deadline always or most of the time. Only 4% (5) admitted to
    meeting the deadline less than half the time.


                    Which of the following do you find most difficult in terms of processing requests?


                                           Applying the public interest test

     Coordinating with sections of the organization that hold the requested
                                  information

     Figuring out if your organization holds the information and if so where
                                   it is located

                                                         Implementing fees


                                          Providing advice and assistance


                                                 Logging/tracking requests


                                                                      Other


                                                                               0%   5%   10%   15%   20%   25%   30%   35%   40%
                                                                                          Percentage of respondents



•   According to respondents, the three most difficult FOI compliance tasks are applying the public
    interest test, figuring out if the organization holds the requested information (each mentioned

                                                                                                                                   8
    by 28% [37]), and coordinating with sections of the organization that hold the requested
    information, selected by 22% (29).

•   Conversely, only 5% (7) find implementing fees challenging and 5% (6) consider providing
    advice and assistance problematic. A mere 3% (4) think that logging/tracking requests is
    difficult.


                           'I find tracking software useful to FOI compliance'


                   Strongly agree


                            Agree

                  Neither agree or
                      disagree

                         Disagree


                 Strongly disagree


                                     0%     5%         10%    15%    20%       25%     30%
                                                  Percentage of respondents



• 58% (77) of the FOI practitioners surveyed said they use FOI request tracking systems.

• Among those who do, 77% (59) agree or strongly agree that the systems are useful to FOI
  compliance.

• Whilst the data indicates an even spread of opinion across the range of software systems used,
  those whose departments use an in-house system (15) appeared uniformly satisfied. Central
  government departments appear to employ the most in-house bespoke software.

4). Resources

                        'My organization has adequate resources (i.e. staff,
                       software, etc.) to handle the FOI requests we receive'


                              Strongly agree

                                          Agree

                   Neither agree or disagree

                                      Disagree

                           Strongly disagree

                                                  0%    10%   20%    30%      40%    50%
                                                       Percentage of respondents



                                                                                              9
•   52% (69) of respondents’ agree or strongly agree that their departments provide them with
    adequate resources to handle FOI compliance.

•   Cross referencing practitioners’ ability to respond to information requests by the statutory
    deadline with their views on the adequacy of departmental resources reveals that all five
    respondents whose departments met the statutory deadline less than half the time either
    consider their departmental resources inadequate for dealing with FOI requests or are neutral
    on the subject.


                         'Key FOI staff at my organization (i.e. those who deal with
                        requests for information) have received sufficient training in
                                          implementing the FOI Act'



                  Strongly agree


                           Agree


                 Neither agree or
                     disagree


                        Disagree


               Strongly disagree


                                    0%   10%       20%      30%       40%       50%      60%

                                               Percentage of respondents



•   76% of respondents agree or strongly agree that FOI staff in their organization have
    undergone sufficient training, while only 11% (14) disagree.

•   69% (89) of FOI practitioners who meet the statutory 20-day deadline more than 75% of the
    time either agree or strongly agree that FOI staff at their organization have received sufficient
    FOI training.




                                                                                                  10
5). Advice and guidance


               When dealing with a difficult or complex request, to whom do you turn for
                                             help or advice?


            Colleagues in my organization

       Department of Constitutional Affairs

                      Senior management

    FOI practitioners in other organizations

       Information Commissioner's Office


                A listserv or internet forum

                                       Other

                                               0%     10%      20%      30%       40%       50%   60%
                                                              Percentage of respondents



•   When dealing with a difficult request, over half of respondents - 54% (72) - seek advice from
    other colleagues. Thirty-five percent (47) turn to the DCA for help, while 31% (42) seek
    assistance from colleagues in other organizations.

•   The only multiple-mention source of assistance in the ‘other’ category was the ‘in-house legal
    unit’, which was mentioned by 43% (32) of those who use other sources.


                       Which organization's guidance on FOI implementation have
                          you found most helpful in responding to requests?


                               DCA


                               ICO

               Office of the Deputy
                 Prime Minister
                 Local Government
                    Association

                              Other


                                      0%       10%     20%     30%     40%       50%      60%
                                                     Percentage of respondents




                                                                                                        11
•   54% (72) of respondents found the DCA the most helpful in responding to requests, compared
    to 23% (31) who found the ICO the most helpful and 14% (19) who found other sources the
    most helpful.


                  On which of the following topics would you like to see guidance
                            published or existing guidance updated?

                  Balancing the public
                        interest
                  Handling repeat and
                  vexatious requests
                 Dealing with personal
                 information requests

                      Fees regulation


                    Codes of Practice


                                Other


                                         0%   10%     20%     30%     40%       50%   60%
                                                    Percentage of respondents


(Respondents had the option of filling in more than one topic on which they would like to see
guidance published or existing guidance updated.)

•   57% (76) of the FOI practitioners surveyed would like to see guidance on balancing the public
    interest updated, 38% (51) on handling repeated or vexatious requests, and 35% (47) on
    dealing with personal information requests.

•   13% (17) of surveyed FOI practitioners would like to see guidance created or updated on other
    areas such as commercial interest or the Environmental Information Regulations.

6). FOI Practitioner Networks

•   52% of those surveyed subscribe to FOI practitioner networks. Although the most frequently
    mentioned FOI practitioner network is JISC Mail, only 11% (15) of the surveyed departments
    subscribe, indicating that at the time of this survey there was no strong lead network for FOI
    practitioners.

•   Other networks mentioned include ‘Local FOI groups’, such as the Kent FOI Forum or West
    Yorkshire Information Management Forum, which are regionally based.




                                                                                               12
7). Miscellaneous


                    How has your organization informed the public about its
                            procedure for making an FOI request?


                                     On our website



                          In a published document



            We have not publicized this procedure



                                             Other


                                                      0%    20%    40%     60%     80%   100%
                                                           Percentage of respondents


•   96% (128) of respondents stated that there is information on their web site about how to make
    a freedom of information request. Only 2% (3) stated that their organization had not publicised
    the procedure.

•   Other means of informing the public about departmental procedures for making FOI requests
    include posters/leaflets, a local paper and a public relations event (reported by a central
    government respondent).


                      Would you say that the attitude toward FOI among staff
                                     at your organization is:


                    Very positive


                        Positive

              Neither positive or
                   negative

                        Negative


                  Very negative

                                    0%    10%      20%       30%     40%         50%     60%
                                                Percentage of respondents


•   51% (68) felt that the attitude toward FOI within their organization was positive.



                                                                                                13
Conclusions
Below are the key findings of this study

1). Responders and their organizations

 •       The majority of the responders were the primary FOI practitioners for their organization.

 •       Nearly all the FOI practitioners that responded had duties besides FOI compliance, mostly
         concerning data protection and/or the Environmental Information Regulations.

2). Requesters and requests

 •       Over half of respondents reported that their organization received between 1 and 100
         requests January 1st and 16 June 2005, though a fairly large number received up to 300
         requests for information.

 •       Despite the ‘requester blind’ aspect of Freedom of Information legislation (which allows a
         requester to make a request without revealing the capacity in which he/she makes it), best
         estimates of the FOI practitioners surveyed reveal that a large percentage of requesters are
         either private individuals or journalists. However, many ‘private individuals’ could have made
         their requests for public interest, academic or commercial purposes.

 •       A large number of requests deal with information about management/use of public funds or
         the government’s policies and plans.

3). Processing requests

     •     Most practitioners claim that they have infrequently refused to disclose information (either
           partially or fully), though a fair number have refused between 20% and 50% of time.

     •     The majority of FOI practitioners claim to have met the statutory 20-day deadline ‘most of
           the time’.

     •     The surveyed FOI practitioners found that the three most common difficulties with FOI
           compliance are applying the public interest test, figuring out whether the authority holds the
           information and, if so, where it is located, and coordinating with sections of the organization
           that hold the requested information.

3). Resources

     •     More practitioners agree than disagree that their authority has sufficient resources to
           handle FOI requests.

     •     Most FOI practitioners also agree that the key FOI staff at their organisation have had
           adequate training in FOI compliance.

4). Advice and guidance

     •     The single most frequently cited source of advice when dealing with difficult or complex
           requests is colleagues, followed closely by the DCA and senior management.

     •     Practitioners find the DCA’s guidance most helpful in responding to requests.

     •     If given a choice, most FOI practitioners would like to see updated guidance on balancing
           the public interest test.

                                                                                                       14
•   Over half of practitioners subscribe to a support/advice network, though no single network
    is overwhelmingly subscribed.

•   As of 16 June 2005, most practitioners feel that the attitude toward FOI in their organization
    is positive, though many also claim that the attitude is neither positive nor negative.




                                                                                               15
Appendix A – Survey Questions

Survey responder-related questions
1. For which type of organisation do you work?
      a. Central government department
      b. Public body or quango
      c. Local authority
      d. NHS
      e. University
      f. Other______________________________________________________________

2. Are you the principal FOI officer for your organisation?
      a. Yes
      b. No

3. As an FOI practitioner, which responsibilities do you have besides processing FOI requests?
   (Please circle all that apply.)
       a. I only work on FOI.
       b. Data protection
       c. Environmental Information Regulations (EIR)
       d. Records management
       e. Other______________________________________________________________

Information requests-related questions
4. To the best of your knowledge, what are the main categories of FOI requester to your
    organisation? (Please circle the top THREE categories of requesters in terms of
    volumes of requests made.)
       a. Private individual
       b. Journalist
       c. Politician or politician’s assistant
       d. Academic/student
       e. Interest or pressure group or NGO
       f. Civil servant/public official
       g. Business employee/executive
       h. Lawyer
       i. Other __________________

5. What types of information are being requested? (Please circle the top THREE most
   requested categories of information in terms of volumes of requests made.)
      a. A government policy(ies)/plan(s)
      b. Management/use of public funds
      c. A government contract
      d. A regulatory or licensing decision
      e. Other business transactions (Please explain:_______)
      f. Individual’s employment at a government department or agency
      g. A refusal of government services or benefits
      h. Other personal information about the requester (Please explain:______)
      i. Information about a third party
      j. Other___________________

6. To the best of your knowledge, how many requests has your authority received since 1st
   January 2005?
       a. None
       b. 1 – 100
       c. 101 – 300
       d. 301 – 500
                                                                                            16
       e. 500 – 1000
       f. More than 1000

7. Approximately how many of your organisation’s FOI responses involve a partial or full
   refusal to disclose?
       a. Less than 10%
       b. 10% - 20%
       c. 20% - 50%
       d. Over 50%

8. On average, does your organisation meet the statutory 20-day deadline:
      a. Always (100% of the time)
      b. Most of the time (75-99% of the time)
      c. Often (50-74% of the time)
      d. Less than half the time (25-49% of the time)
      e. Rarely (Less than 25% of the time)
      f. Never

Processing requests
9. How has your organisation informed the public about its procedure for making an FOI
   request?
      a. On our web site
      b. In a published document
      c. We have not publicized the procedure.
      d. Other______________________________________________________________

10. Is there an FOI request tracking system in place at your organisation?
         a. Yes
         b. No

   10b. If yes, does your organisation use software dedicated to tracking FOI requests?
      a. Yes (Please identify software:________________________________________)
      b. No

   10c. If yes, please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement:
       I find the tracking software useful to FOI compliance.
       a. Strongly agree
       b. Agree
       c. Neither agree nor disagree
       d. Disagree
       e. Strongly disagree

11. Which of the following do you find most difficult in terms of processing requests? (Please
    select only one.)
       a. Providing advice and assistance
       b. Logging/tracking requests
       c. Implementing fees
       d. Applying the public interest test
       e. Figuring out if your organisation holds the information and, if so, where it is located
       f. Coordinating with sections of the organisation that hold the requested information
       g. Other _________________

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement:
12. My organisation has adequate resources (i.e. staff, software, etc.) to handle the FOI
    requests we receive.
       a. Strongly agree
       b. Agree

                                                                                                17
       c. Neither agree nor disagree
       d. Disagree
       e. Strongly disagree

Awareness and training
13. Would you say that the attitude toward FOI among staff at your organisation is:
      a. Very positive
      b. Positive
      c. Neither positive nor negative
      d. Negative
      e. Very negative

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement:
14. Key FOI staff at my organisation (i.e. those who deal with requests for information) have
    received sufficient training in implementing the FOI Act.
       a. Strongly agree
       b. Agree
       c. Neither agree nor disagree
       d. Disagree
       e. Strongly disagree

Advice and guidance
15. When dealing with a difficult or complex request, to whom do you turn for help or advice?
      a. Colleagues in my organisation
      b. Senior management
      c. Department for Constitutional Affairs
      d. Information Commissioner’s Office
      e. FOI practitioners in other organisations
      f. A listserv or internet forum (Please identify:_______________________________)
      g. Other _____________________________________________________________

16. Which organisation’s guidance on FOI implementation have you found most helpful in
    responding to requests? (Please select only one.)
       a. Department for Constitutional Affairs
       b. Information Commissioner’s Office
       c. Improvement and Development Agency
       d. Local Government Association
       e. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
       f. Other ______________________________________________________________

17. On which of the following topics would you like to see guidance published or existing
    guidance updated?
        a. Fees regulations
        b. Balancing the public interest
        c. Dealing with personal information requests
        d. Handling repeat and vexatious requests
        e. Codes of Practice
        f. Other
           _______________________________________________________________

18. Are you part of an informal FOI practitioner network (e.g. JISC mail)?
       a. Yes (Please
           identify:______________________________________________________)
       b. No
       c. If not, would you like to be? (yes/no)



                                                                                                18

								
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