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Understanding what information people commonly request from public authorities

Aiden Clarkson Senior Upstream Regulation Officer – FOI and Transparency

People can use the WhatDoTheyKnow (WDTK) website to submit Freedom of Information (FOI) and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) requests to public organisations. 

Working with WDTK, we have analysed a sample of more than 150,000 requests made during 2022 and identified common themes in the information that has been asked for.

Understanding what people are interested in can help FOI and EIR practitioners to consider whether proactive publication of this information would benefit their organisation and help to reduce information requests.

We’ve broken the information down across five different sectors: 

Health

  • Meetings, committees, and minutes
  • Data and statistics
  • Complaints 
  • Recruitment and staffing information, including fuel allowance and travel costs
  • Policies
  • Mental health care

Local Government 

  • Highways, roads and parking  
  • Bus lanes and bus services
  • Children, schools and care
  • Housing and planning
  • Contracts
  • Internal correspondence
  • Asbestos

Education 

  • Admissions
  • Grades, scores and results 
  • Management and finances 
  • Economics, law, engineering, science and medicine courses.

Central Government 

  • Data and statistics
  • Correspondence and communications
  • Meetings
  • Covid-19
  • Costs

Emergency Services 

  • Statistical information
  • Hate crimes, crimes of a sexual nature, assault, and stalking
  • Vehicle and fleet 
  • Roads and speed limits

We appreciate that the roles and responsibilities of organisations vary and that not all public authorities in the same sector will hold the same types of information. Please use these themes as a guide. 

When thinking about how this insight can help your organisation, there are a few things to consider:

  • Where these themes are broad, for example, internal correspondence or statistical information, think about the nature of requests you’ve received historically. If there are patterns which indicate a public interest in topics specific to your organisation, consider whether the proactive publication of internal correspondence or statistical information related to those themes would help satisfy that interest. 
  • There is overlap between the themes we’ve picked out here and the classes of information flagged for proactive disclosure in our model publication scheme
  • If you already publish information which corresponds to these themes, how easy is it to find on your website? Making it more readily accessible may reduce your request caseload. 

The benefits of proactive disclosure 

Understanding the publics’ information needs can better equip public authorities to meet one of the challenges set out in the Information Commissioner’s recent open letter to senior leaders: ‘…look at what people are asking you about and actively publish it.’

Proactive publication leads to greater transparency and could decrease the number of information requests you receive. Our case study on the London Borough of Camden’s business as usual responses shows the positive impact that greater accessibility to proactively published information can have on case-handling times.

If the kind of proactive disclosure we’ve described here has a measurable impact on the time you spend responding to information requests, please let us know

Thank you to mySociety, which runs the ‘What do they know?’ website, for providing the data. 

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