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Survey details FOI impact on councils

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A two-year study into the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on local government has delivered mixed messages for the sector.

The latest report from academics at University College London’s Constitution Unit highlighted a grudging acceptance of media requests among officers, but concerns over “significant” levels of requests from businesses – averaging around one-quarter of all requests. A particular issue was found to be requests about past and future tenders. One local authority claimed 70% of its FOIs were business-related.

The unit had already logged the phenomenal rise in FOI requests being dealt with by English councils – rising from 60,000 in 2005, when the process was introduced, to an estimated 198,000 in 2010. Central government, meanwhile, received a fraction of that level

The Constitution Unit said the quality of senior relationships – such as those between council leaders and chief executives – had been found to have a bearing on the level of openness shown by individual authorities.

Research associate Ben Worthy said the research had underscored that the provisions of the act were not being used as had originally been envisaged.

“Officers feel that it is OK for the public to use the act, but it is business that has really bugged them because they felt things like legal firms using FOI to find out details of people who have died without heirs was not the purpose of the legislation,” he said.

Among the other findings in Town Hall Transparency (see file at right) are:

  • FOI requests from the public tend to be “niche” or of private interest to the person involved, and therefore negating the benefits of proactive publication;
  • FOI may have created a culture of not recording particular sensitive data so that details about how decisions are reached cannot be so easily learned - the so-called “chilling effect”;
  • FOI has had little effect on service-delivery because requests are rarely about it;
  • FOI requests rarely result in a “smoking gun”-style piece of information, and are more likely to be part of a wider information-gathering campaign; and
  • FOI costs to councils appear hugely variable, with Cornwall Council estimating an average cost of £150 but Bexley LBC estimating £36.
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