Research into information requests to the health and education sectors

This study was undertaken in 2008 to gain a better understanding of very different experiences of the volumes of requests across sectors of public authorities. Local government and police bodies had been reporting very high volumes of requests to their organisations, compared to health and higher and further education bodies. The research sought to identify any factors which might explain these differences.

The research was in two parts:

  • a questionnaire survey of health and education bodies undertaken by the Scottish Information Commissioner's staff and
  • an in-depth telephone interview study of health and education bodies, commissioned from Reid Howie Associates.

Questionnaire results

Responses to the Commissioner's questionnaire confirmed previously anecdotal reports that volumes of requests were lower in the health and education sectors than elsewhere. There was, however, wide variation within these sectors. The survey indicated that this may be due to differences in the way that these sectors record and respond to requests for information. Information most commonly sought may have been dealt with in other ways (rather than using FOI law) or was available from other sources. Since these were not recorded as FOI requests, this may explain the low volumes. Both sectors reported receiving high volumes of requests from the media.

Telephone survey results

Although there were similarities in the overall approach taken by health and education authorities to managing information requests, the survey identified considerable differences in the way these authorities record requests. Respondents from these sectors were not surprised that local government and police authorities would receive more information requests than health and education authorities. For example, they thought that the volume of requests to local authorities would be affected by the direct link between council tax, personal income and services.

Many respondents also suggested that the nature and business of their authorities might explain the lower volumes of requests. For example, patients have one to one appointments where they can ask for information and may therefore be less inclined to make a written request. However, this also leads to health bodies receiving many more subject access requests (for the requester's own personal information) than requests under FOI law. Further and higher education respondents felt that universities and colleges are particularly open and approachable and therefore there are many informal channels for accessing information without having to make a request for it. They also pointed to published information resources such as prospectuses, which may deal with many potential requests from students.

Respondents from both sectors reported receiving a relatively high proportion of requests from the media, but lower volumes of requests than might be expected from civil society organisations e.g. charities. There was some concern voiced that requesters to health services may be deterred if their request is perceived as a complaint.

Most interviewees were concerned about the capacity of their organisations to cope with any increase in the volume of requests.

Half of the respondents to the telephone survey felt there had been a change to their operational practices and almost 60% agreed that their organisations had become more open and transparent as a result of FOI law.

Further development

The report concludes with suggestions from the respondents to the survey for developments in good practice, including:

  • providing more information and publicity (for the public)
  • appropriate procedures for handling and responding to freedom of information requests
  • promoting knowledge and understanding of freedom of information among practitioners
  • developing a body of good practice information in the sectors.

Download the research report below:

Survey of Health and Higher Education Authorities (PDF - 260 KB)

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