Making Freedom of Information requests better

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2000 and places a duty on public bodies to publish information about their work and also gives citizens the right to request information about the work of public bodies. At Hackney Council we are committed to transparency and fulfilling our FOI responsibilities, but we also need to do this in the context of rapidly growing demand and ever tightening resources.

In recent years at Hackney we have seen an increase in the number of FOIs that we receive year on year, and in the 2018/19 financial year we expect to receive more than 2000 requests. In each of the past 3 years the Council has sustained a consistent number of responses to FOI requests within the statutory time limits and we have not been able to keep pace with the growing demand. As a result the overall % of responses that we send out on time has fallen.

This is in the context of substantial cuts to Council funding which have put pressure on all of the services that we provide to our residents. It’s important that we minimise the burden that responding to FOIs has on service teams so that they can protect the services that residents and businesses in our borough rely on.

Our work on FOIs includes simplifying the systems that we use to manage FOI responses so that our processes are as efficient as possible, and also improving performance data so that we can provide targeted support to services who need to respond to FOIs.

But the work that we think will be most important in making FOIs better is using open data and smarter technology for submission of requests which will help requesters find data that has already been published so that we receive fewer FOI requests.

We’ve already started with that and through a project last year we now have a new online service for FOI requests (https://www.hackney.gov.uk/foi-request). This was developed in partnership with mysociety and used extensive user research to make the process as simple as possible. One of the features that we introduced with this is a smart search tool which automatically looks at information that we have already published and makes suggestions for information that might meet the requesters’ needs. We believe that we have already avoided c 50 FOIs because of this and will be doing more analysis to assess the impact that this is having.

In line with our principles of working in the open and sharing, this is available as open source for other councils to use: https://github.com/mysociety/foi-for-councils

We’re now working to build on that and take it further.

Firstly, we are analysing the data we have on FOI requests to identify common themes. We’ll be using this to publish more information proactively as open data so that the smart search tool can help more people find the information they’re looking for without having to submit an FOI to get it.

Secondly, we are working with colleagues in Suffolk, Stevenage and Cornwall to look at the user journey for council staff who manage and respond to FOI requests and prototype digital tools and data standards which might better support them and allow them to handle requests from the public more efficiently. This joint project was successful in securing funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital fund and you can read more about the project and keep up to date with our progress through the Pipeline digital collaboration platform: https://pipeline.localgov.digital/wiki/244/better-case-management-of-foi-and-sar-requests.

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