The true cost to a university of processing a freedom of information (FOI) request has been revealed by Jisc infoNet.
The research shows that in the seven institutions surveyed, a FOI request takes a university an average of 5 hours 2 minutes to respond, at a cost of £99 rising to £121 when employment overheads are taken into consideration.
However, the report suggests that there are factors influencing these costs including the size of the institution, the nature of the request and possibly the maturity of the institution’s records management system.
As Steve Bailey, the senior adviser at Jisc infoNet who managed the research, explains: “From the data we have there appear to be certain elements responsible for influencing the costs involved in processing requests over which the institution has no control; its size, for example, where the bigger the institution the more complex and therefore more costly the process is likely to be. There will also always be an element of luck involved with a question which one institution might find relatively easy to answer proving difficult and vice versa, simply due to the exact wording of the request and the way in which each institution functions. However, a good records management system seems to have the potential to streamline the identification, location and access of required information; whilst ensuring staff at the most appropriate grade are engaged in each stage of the process may also help universities deal with requests more efficiently.”
The research tracked 36 different FOI requests in seven institutions during January 2012.
Now that the methodology underpinning this research has proved successful Jisc infoNet plans to collect similar data for a further 140 requests over five months later this year. The work was inspired by discussions with UUK.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, said: “Universities are committed to openness and transparency and Jisc research has shown that universities respond efficiently to the majority of FOI requests. But this latest research shows that the costs are considerable. We want the Government to look closely at how FOI affects universities and particularly at aspects such as the charging rules, and how FOI relates to unpublished research. Meanwhile, this research will help universities develop their capacity to deal with these requests.”
The Jisc figures appear to be broadly in line with data released earlier this week from the Ministry of Justice study (PDF) into the costs associated with FOI. That study suggested an average response time of 5 hours 21 minutes at a cost of £164 for non-central government departments, rising to 6 hours 10 minutes and £184 for central government departments.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives anyone the right to access information held by public authorities, which includes most UK colleges and universities.
For advice on how to deal with FOI requests, and the legal issues surrounding them, read Jisc Legal’s guidance.