FOI Man reports on the latest research on the cost of answering FOI requests.

The Ministry of Justice says that the average cost of answering FOI requests to central government in staff time is £30 an hour, and that on average each FOI request to central government costs £184 to answer. These are the headline findings of newly published research from Ipsos Mori for the Department. The research took requests made to a range of central government departments in a one week period in late November/early December and tracked their progress by asking staff in those departments to complete sheets saying how much time they had spent on each category of work. The grades of the staff involved were also noted so that figures could be calculated based on the seniority of the staff involved as well as the time spent.

The 8 categories of work used were:

  • administration, including allocation and logging
  • searching for information
  • reading time
  • consideration
  • discussions with other depts in central govt
  • discussions with other bodies outside govt
  • drafting submissions and consultation with Ministers/board members
  • drafting of response (including redaction) and internal sign-off.

Some might raise eyebrows at the decision to double the figures recorded by staff in the study for discussions and consultation “because the majority of time recorded in this column did not appear to account for the time spent on the request by officials in other departments”, ie apparently because the figures weren’t as high as they thought they should be. However, by and large, the time spent on these activities does not form a huge percentage of the time spent on requests according to the report.

The study also looked at the cost of handling requests in 19 non-central government bodies and the cost findings are broadly similar. Rather curiously, they looked at the cost of handling EIR requests separately and concluded that they cost twice as much to answer as FOI requests. Many FOI Officers not involved in the research might feel that finding is questionable.

The report highlights two “expensive” requests. One it claims cost £2,500 and was not yet answered. The description of this request adds that “the majority of the discussion time can be attributed to two officials earning £100,000+ per annum”. It does not say why it was necessary for such well-paid officials to consider the request.

The report claims that 11% of the requests covered by the study were refused on grounds of cost, but that if reading, consultation and drafting time could have been included, a further 4% would have been excluded. Outside central government, this figure would be nearer 10%.

Overall the research appears a useful contribution to the debate about the cost of FOI, but as always it suffers from flaws in its methodology. This is my initial reaction to a very quick flick through the report on the research, and I’m sure that others will have more considered things to say in due course.