Discussions about the costs associated with responding to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act tend to generate strong emotions. For some, the transparency and accountability FOI brings is worth nearly any price; whereas others view every pound spent as a pound taken away from an institution’s core mission. Part of the problem is often the scarcity of any reliable data on which to base any such discussions. But now, by combining the results of two separate research projects we are able to go some way towards rectifying this.
Following on from the success of our Calculating the Cost of FOI research project early in 2012 we repeated the project, but this time capturing 100 requests over a five month period to give us a much larger and more representative dataset regarding the true total costs associated with responding to an FOI request. The richness of the data we have gathered allows us to assess a variety of factors: from records management maturity to institutional size and examine the impact they may have on costs. The results from this Phase 2 project, launched today, also allow us for the first time to see the impact of requests on different functions within the institution: revealing some interesting and potentially significant results. The headline figure, however, is that according to this research it currently costs £144.93 per request for an institution to respond to each request it receives.
This, of course, then begs the question: how many requests are institutions receiving?
Since 2005 Jisc infoNet has been tracking request numbers, plus a whole host of other metrics, via its annual Information Legislation and Management Survey. The results for 2012 are also being launched today and reveal an increase in the average number of FOI requests received for the eighth successive year, albeit with less of a hike than in recent years, perhaps suggestive of a potential levelling off of interest. Once again the full results are available for institutions to review and analyse for themselves but the main finding: that the average number of requests per institution per month now stands at 10.7, when combined with the costs data we also now have, means that it is possible to start to calculate some overall costs for the sector with a greater degree of accuracy than has hitherto been possible.
Combining an average cost per request of £144.93 with the average number of requests per institution of 10.7 gives us an average cost per institution per annum of £18,609. Multiply this by the 163 HE institutions in the UK listed in HESA data and you arrive at a figure of £3,033,268 per annum.
As ever of course, there are some caveats to bear in mind here: firstly the inherent dangers involved in using averages in what is a very diverse sector. Secondly: that we are relying on data provided by the 60 institutions that responded to the survey and have no way of knowing how representative or otherwise their experience is of the sector as a whole. And finally, we should not forget that the costs associated with the handling of requests do not represent the full picture: there are staffing costs associated with employing FOI and other compliance staff and any fees associated with obtaining specialist legal advice in response to particularly challenging requests. All of which will clearly add to the balance sheet, but in ways it is not possible to measure with any reasonable degree of certainty.
And as for the question of whether the £3m we estimate it costs the UK HE sector to respond to FOI requests each year represents good value for money? Well, now that we have provided the data we will leave you all to form your own opinions…