Local Authority Handling of Freedom of Information Requests: Lessons from a Research Project
Freedom of information requests can provide a fruitful resource for citizens, public interest groups, journalists and academic researchers alike. Since the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 have come into force, the respective legislation has weaved into a fabric of existing mechanisms used to facilitate democratic accountability. Freedom of information is seen by some an ‘essential component’ in the quest for truth (Birkinshaw, 2001). The information obtained by such requests make a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas. An informed populous ensures the continued evolution of healthy, mature democracies, with the informed population more able to hold government accountable (Fenster 2010).
The purpose of this article is to report on early findings from a wide scale research project which relies on the effectiveness freedom of information provisions in order to obtain data. If freedom of information legislation does not function to ensure disclosures by public authorities, the research data necessary for the research would either not be available or would be much more difficult to obtain. In making FOIA requests, the authors hope to map the use of whistleblowing disclosures within a complex regulatory landscape, involving both local authorities and national regulators. In this piece a whistleblowing disclosure is seen as communication “by organisation members… of illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers to persons or organisations who effect action” (Near and Miceli 1985) A particular emphasis is placed on the regulation of food premises. Following the development of an effective methodology to capture the required information, the authors sent FOIA requests to 48 local authorities as a pilot study.
The first part of this article will provide an introduction to the legislative provisions, outlining some of the hurdles faced by individuals motivated to make requests. The second part will provide a detailed explanation of the methodology utilised by the authors. The third part will report on the initial results of the project. The article will then conclude by making recommendations for both requesters and local authorities with the aim of making the freedom of information regime more effective for all parties concerned.