The Best Things in Life Are Free: How Much Does FOI Cost?

Before FOI came into force, the highest potential cost of FOI to the taxpayer was estimated to be just under £125 million per year, around 0.05% of total public expenditure for that year. This figure was based on an average £350 cost per request with a forecast of 190,000 annual requests, and a £10 flat rate fee for all requests that would cost less than £500 to respond to.

In 2006 and the Frontier Economics report commissioned by the Blair government estimated that on average FOI cost the U.K. tax payer £35.5 million per annum, around 0.007% of total public expenditure in 2006. The report suggested that the average FOI request cost £293 and advised introducing charges to reduce the ‘expensive’ burden that requests had begun to impose. It was, however, heavily criticised (see here and here).

The cost of FOI is very difficult to calculate.  Different studies have used different methods and, unsurprisingly, have come to very different results. While you can simply multiply hours by time taken this may fail to catch, for example, the ‘opportunity costs’ of involving other staff or time spent in discussions. One very interesting variable is how long the average request takes, stretching from 7 hours in Scotland to 56.2 hours in Australia.

The table below summarises a range of FOI costs produced by different countries. To see the original report click on the country name (except the UK where the report is no longer available).

Country Year Total Number of Requests per year Total Cost of FOI per year Average time taken to complete request Average Cost per FOI request
U.K. 2005 121,000 £35.5 million 7.5 hours £293
Scotland 2009 - - 7 hours 22 minutes £189
Ireland 2009 14,290 6.9 million euros - € 425
Canada 2000-2001 20,789 $28.8 million (*IN 1999*) 38 hours $1,035
Australia 2008-2009 27,561 $30,358,484 56.2 hours $1,208
U.S. 2009 557,825 $382,244,225 - $685

Just to put this into perspective, and illustrate the varying nature of the figures, here are all the per request costs converted into sterling.

Cost per FOI request in British Pounds

 

Cost in £GBP
England 293
Scotland 189
Ireland 364
Canada 637
Australia 748
US 428

The problem gets more complex if you compare the cost of FOI with other government spending.  £35.5 million is only just higher than that spent by the government on web staff (£32 million), or even the same amount as just one council housing project in Bristol. The total spent on FOI is roughly equivalent to the cost of the Royal parks. But how do you measure what benefit people get from them?

The cost of FOI then, it seems, is also political. A US study described how FOI, from the point of view of politicians, introduced ‘concentrated costs and dispersed benefits’. It is easy to see the resource and political costs but much more difficult to quantify or see the benefits flowing from FOI. Some may feel the cost is a small price to pay for revealing MPs’ expenses or senior officials’ salaries.

To make it even more confusing supporters here and elsewhere also point out that FOI can actually save money by highlighting inefficient spending, as this very interesting report from Ireland by Dr Nat O’ Connor shows.

Research by Anna Colquhoun

4 Responses to The Best Things in Life Are Free: How Much Does FOI Cost?

  1. Pingback: FRINFORMSUM: 6/7/2011 « UNREDACTED

  2. Pingback: Ultimos casos | Minileaks

  3. Pingback: What price freedom (of information)? « Cal Flyn

  4. Pingback: Government Response on FOI « constitutionunitdotcom

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