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

Round Round… I Get Around

Both national and local media regularly use FOI in the UK. Some, particularly national, media outlets use so-called round robin requests – that is a request sent to many public bodies at the same time (e.g. all councils, NHS Primary Care Trusts etc). These allow journalists to compare, benchmark and obtain a ‘national overview’ of issues.

NGOs are one source of round robins, and their results are often used by the media. One such group are the high-profile Tax Payers’ Alliance. The TPA’s round robins have picked up on some interesting trends and spending habits, helping to show the public exactly how their taxes are being spent. For example, one round robin has revealed the extent of council spending on taxis to school and treatment programmes for juvenile offenders, whilst another has illuminated the levels of “Taxpayer funded environmentalism” at the local level of government.

Another NGO issuing round robins is Big Brother Watch, which is concerned with the surveillance state. In a round robin that was responded to by 336 local councils, Big Brother Watch was able to uncover for the first time that the UK government had spent a total of £314,835,170.39 on CCTV alone between 2007-2010.

The media itself is also a frequent issuer of round robins. For example, in 2009 the BBC was able to show the vast difference in price that local councils paid for rock-salt used to grit icy roads across the country, whilst Channel 4 and the newly established Bureau of Investigative Journalism conducted the largest ever FOI round robin project, taking over 9 months to use various FOI requests in order to assess council spending and waste.

Council spending and local authority inefficiency have now become the classic topics of NGO and media FOI requests, with today’s BBC article on ‘Councils Missed £530m in Taxes’ the result of 408 local FOI requests. (See also this Telegraph article from November 2010 for an example)

Yet, some journalists are moving away from the ‘classic’ stories of overspending and inefficiency to now focus on more unusual topics – such as how some councils have banned their employees from using Latin phrases, or how one particular Basildon council worker suffered a cracked rib as the result of a practical joke.

The issue of round robins has become controversial, with one source estimating that round robin FOI requests will have cost local councils around £27 million in 2010. The ICO has published notes on how certain requests can be refused, via section 14 of the FOIA, if it is considered “vexatious or repeated”. And as FOI Man and David Higgerson have revealed in their blogs, the NHS has even begun implementing a documented procedure for dealing with round robin requests that will alert the Strategic Health Authority FOI leads, and in turn the Department of Health, about such requests.  Journalists have taken up the challenge and David Higgerson has provided useful tips on how to avoid being seen as a round robin requester.

Whichever side you fall on, round robins look set to remain controversial. Only time will tell if investigative journalists and the round robins requests they issue will lead to increased efficiency, or if they unnecessarily add to the burden and cost of local government.