One of the things we know very little about is the requester. Who are they? What do they want? And what do they do with the information? The general pattern seems to be that the public is the biggest user, followed by small groups of journalists and activists. At certain levels, and in certain countries, particularly the USA and Canada, business is also a big requester.
A recent report from the EU commission on use of its own access legislation has shown some interesting variation against this general pattern (though it needs to be remembered that total requests in 2010 were only 6127 compared with 5055 in 2009).
The biggest users of EU access legislation are academics (23%), followed by other public authorities (13%) and lawyers (10%). It’s quite possible that the deadlines on returning the information mean that only researchers with time to spare (e.g. academics, lawyers) use it, rather than those with very strict deadlines such as journalists (3%). Other EU institutions make up 8 % of requesters-is that indicative of information sharing problems?
Another interesting question, given the size of the EU, is which countries they are coming from. Belgium is top, accounting for 17 % of all requests, Germany is second on 16 %,France on 9 % and Italy on 8 %. The UK is fifth on 7 %. Many of the newer accession countries, with the exception of the Czech Republic and Poland, make much less use of it.
So what is being asked for? FOI often targets particular areas. Traditionally these are either affairs of importance to a particular person (so for example, Veteran’s Affairs or Social Security are big topics) or areas of general interest such as finance. The Secretariat General is the primary focus of 11% of all requests with Competition second on 9 %. Justice is high up, third place on 8%; as is often the case, but both finance and trade (2%) and agriculture (3%) seem remarkably low on the list.
So why this difference from normal patterns? It may be that EU documents are of interest to particular groups. It may also be simply matter of publicity-few know it exists. There are also clearly difficulties over access and responsiveness, something Access Info Europe was very critical of earlier this year. Things may get more interesting with the arrival of the new website that helps people to make requests ‘Ask the EU’ later this year.