Information overload

No reasonable person can be opposed to the idea of freedom of information: the idea that bodies in receipt of public money should be accountable and should be required to release information about how it is spent and how decisions are taken. I am instinctively and on principle in favour of such a framework.

But my support for freedom of information is sometimes sorely tested. So for example, recently I received my university’s report on freedom of information requests received in July and August of this year. There was a total of 33 requests – which I might say in passing is considerably more than the total we would typically have received in a full year when I was President of Dublin City University. We have calculated that processing and answering these 33 requests took 42 hours of staff time, in addition to the time spent by our freedom of information officer in managing the system.

I might have felt this was justifiable if the questions were of real significance and answering them met a public need. Some were. But a majority of them were submitted by people and organisations who wanted us to compile lists of products we use or services we require; in other words they wanted us to provide them with free information on the basis of which they could seek private business deals with us. One particularly annoying question asked us to compile a list of annoying FOI requests we receive.

Freedom of information is a precious resource and should be maintained. But there needs to be a mechanism which distinguishes genuine requests from those that merely try to secure private commercial advantage or which ask us to engage in detailed analysis of rather trivial issues, using significant public money in the process. It may be time to allow us to charge for the staff time spent in compiling answers. Freedom of information should not become a major bureaucracy in its own right.

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One Comment on “Information overload”

  1. kklamb Says:

    I would be wary of advocating blanket charges for FOI requests, as the costs could deter legitimate enquiries. I note on the RGU site that there were approximately 150 requests submitted in 2013, the details of which are available here:
    http://www.rgu.ac.uk/files/dmfile/FoIRequests201312.pdf

    Looking through the list, it’s a little difficult to determine whether the majority of these requests are commercially motivated, though many do seem reasonable.

    In terms of annual costs, from the figures listed in the post, it takes roughly 1.2 hours to deal with a single request, equating to about 190 hours per year (for 150 requests). According to Government guidelines, staff costs are fixed at £25 per hour (for locating, retrieving, editing, etc.), so that works out at a cost to the university of approximately £4772 a year.

    150 requests in 2013 means that on average 12.5 requests come in each month. So the July/August total of 33 saw an increase of 8 requests in that 2-month period.

    On the whole, this doesn’t sound too bad …

    There’s no doubt that charging would be effective. in 2003, the Irish Government increased charges for answering requests under the country’s FOI Act, and usage fell dramatically.

    However, my worry would be that charging wouldn’t deter those with commercial interests, who presumably would be in a better position to pay any fee levied.

    Perhaps others have suggestions as to how the burden could be eased. The information contained in RGU’s publication scheme is a good start:
    http://www.rgu.ac.uk/index.cfm?objectid=4A667EF0-15C4-11E1-BA86000D609CB064

    You could consider posting information requested in an accessible/searchable area of the RGU site – at least this would cut down on repeat FOI requests, and lessen the exclusive(ish) advantage of those motivated through commercial interests.

    The UK leads the world in opening up its data (http://bit.ly/1qofBCX), I think it would be a shame to see institutions stepping back from this trend.


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