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Who makes FOI requests?

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Martin Rosenbaum | 12:56 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011

One of Tony Blair's regrets about introducing the Freedom of Information Act was that it has mostly been used by journalists rather than by "the people", or so he claims.

Tony Blair

Now possibly this is true of those FOI requests to Downing Street which his staff told him about, but whether it applies to the less intrusive requests that never came to his attention is another matter altogether.

In any case at the time he wrote his memoirs he would have been unaware of the more recent activities of his former parliamentary colleague, Tom Watson, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

As an ardent Brownite organiser, Mr Watson was far from being Mr Blair's favourite person, but he's also become an enthusiastic opposition campaigner. He says he's submitted over 3,000 FOI applications since the general election.

Mr Watson writes:

"I love the freedom of information act. I accept that it's not a comforting piece of legislation if you happen to be prime minister. But for a backbench MP who believes in greater transparency in government, it's a great tool."

It all raises the question of what kind of person is actually making freedom of information requests. The data available to answer this question is limited. But I decided to look at one small source which is publicly available.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital provides information on its website not only about all its FOI disclosures but also some details of each requester, and has done so since FOI applications were first made in 2005. As far as I know no other public authority has done this (if you know otherwise, I would be very grateful to hear from you).

We've analysed the 900-plus FOI requests which the hospital trust received in 2005 - 2010.

Table showing categories of requesters

One caveat is necessary: some requesters reported as individuals may actually have been making their request on behalf of an organisation without indicating that. And we should not forget this is only one public authority, which may not be representative of any others.

But the following patterns emerge from this data, such as it is:

The total number of requests was broadly stable for three years, suddenly doubled from 2007 to 2008, and has since remained stable again.

Most requests have come from individuals, with an increase over the past five years and a particular jump in the past year.

Media requests come second, with a pattern of fluctuation over the period.

Political requests come next, peaking in 2008/2009 and dropping rapidly since. Of the 126 requests from politicians or parties, 72 were from Conservatives, 53 from Lib Dems and just one from Labour. This suggests a process of trying to collect useful ammunition in the run up to the general election.

Requesting by businesses has steadily grown over the past six years, as the commercial sector perhaps becomes more aware of the opportunities presented by FOI. This is now the fourth major category of freedom of information applicant.

But actually for me the most surprising revelation was the several instances of hospitals using FOI to get information from other hospitals.

To take one recent example, the Royal Liverpool Hospital has been collecting information on the handling of emergencies which happen outside buildings but elsewhere on hospital premises, eg in car parks.

So who uses FOI? Journalists who in Tony Blair's words may be looking for more effective "mallets" to brandish at those in power (we prefer to call it scrutiny); opposition politicians who can also see a good use for such mallets; businesses who can see commercial value in information; and actually plenty of individuals who hope to find out stuff they want to know and may have a variety of motives. And occasionally there are also parts of the state who exploit it to find out more about other elements of the public sector


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