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The impact of Whatdotheyknow

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:30 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

Last week it was stated that about one in three of the freedom of information requests to the Home Office were made via the Whatdotheyknow site.

And altogether 13% of FOI applications to UK government departments are filed through this site, which processes requests and automatically publishes the responses.

whatdotheyknow website

This is according to a statistical analysis posted on the site's blog last week. It compares the number of requests going through Whatdotheyknow to the official figures published for central government FOI applications for April-June 2009, the most recent data available from the Ministry of Justice.

I have some quibbles about this methodology. For example, some of the "requests" through Whatdotheyknow are most unlikely to be counted as actual FOI requests by the recipient department.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the broad picture that this is a remarkable achievement by Whatdotheyknow, which has been much more successful than I expected.

The growing role played by this site has happened at a time when the number of FOI applications to central government appears to be on the increase (see the 2009 data in Figure 1 and Table A in the Ministry of Justice statistics bulletin).

So one obvious question arises: How much is Whatdotheyknow boosting the total number of FOI requests, and how much is it simply providing a more convenient route for those who would ask the questions anyway?

It's clear that many people find Whatdotheyknow much easier to use than tracking down and implementing the official means provided by some public authorities.

Indeed, there are those who have described it as "too easy", apparently having to restrain themselves from "asking about various things that don't matter all that much..., remembering that there is a poor civil servant at the other end who's going to have to find the information".

But the evidence, such as it is, does not suggest to me that the growth in FOI requesting is particularly linked to the site. Looking at the individual departments, those with the biggest increases over the past year (eg Work and Pensions, Health) are not especially those which are most popular with the users of Whatdotheyknow.

Another potentially interesting analysis might be to examine whether Whatdotheyknow users receive quicker replies and more often get all they asked for than requesters whose responses are not automatically made public.


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