FoI transparency plummets and complaints hit all-time high

The proportion of FoI requests that resulted in all information sought being provided dropped to a new low of 34% last year
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By Sam Trendall

02 May 2024

Public bodies’ release of data under Freedom of Information laws has fallen by almost half since the legislation was introduced, while complaints made about the handling of FoI requests skyrocketed to an all-time high last year.

Government statistics reveal there were a little over 70,000 FoI requests made to public bodies in 2023. This is by far the highest ever total recorded, and marks a significant spike on the preceding years; from 2011 to 2022, the annual number of requests made each year fell in the range of 44,000 to 53,000.

PublicTechnology.net logoAlongside this hefty increase, the proportion that resulted in all requested information being provided dropped markedly from 39% in 2022 to a new low of 34% last year. This means that the rate has been almost cut in half since the Freedom of Information Act first came into effect in 2005, when 66% of requests were granted in full.

Since then, it has declined gradually but steadily, falling below 50% for the first time in 2015, and below 40% for the first time in 2022. The five-percentage-point decrease of 2023 is the joint-highest recorded to date.

The proportion of requests that were responded to within the mandatory 20-working-day period also fell to a new low last year of 75%. The previous low was 77% recorded in the first year of the law, since when the rate has never fallen below 80%.

During 2023-24, the Information Commissioner’s Office also received more than 8,000 FoI-related complaints. This is rise of about a quarter compared with the previous high of 6,418 in 2018-19.

In a blog post, the data regulator's director of FoI and transparency, Warren Seddon, acknowledged that the watchdog’s “caseload – and its age profile – is creeping higher despite the significant improvements we’ve made”.

“We are doing everything we can to keep on top of this within our limited resources,” he added.

“This is why we need to keep exploring ways to do things differently. We are working closely with customer service colleagues across the ICO to identify further efficiencies in how we work, from simplifying processes and supporting our people to exploring how new technology can help us work smarter.

"We’ve also carried out training on dispute resolution to help us resolve cases in different ways and will be seeking to embed this over the next 12 months.”

Seddon also revealed that the ICO aims to make “simple changes to improve our service”. Such updates are exemplified by a recent amendment to the organisation’s policies that means public bodies will now be expected to comply more quickly with decisions taken by the ICO in response to public complaints.

“From now on, where we find a public body has got things wrong, they will have 30 days to comply with a decision, bringing this into line with information notices,” Seddon said.

“This reflects our statutory requirement to allow for appeals to the tribunal, while ensuring we adhere to the commissioner’s maxim that information delayed is information denied.”

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