Research on Parish councils and FOI
In June 2015 we made a series of FOI requests and asks to look into the openness of parish councils in England. To ensure that awareness of our research project did not bias responses we identified ourselves as belonging to a group called Making Parishes Better, rather than from two academics, though our contact details were on the website. We wanted to make sure parishes responded normally and our concern was that if parishes believed we were researching how well FOI worked they would respond differently. We asked for an organisation chart to be sent and published. This was chosen as an item that would not cause controversy and could, we hoped, be put together at very low cost.
The bullet points below offer a summary of our findings, which we hope can help discussion around FOI and how it works for parishes. All data used for our research in the answers is statistical only and is not identifiable or attributable to an individual or public body. You can see a copy of the paper here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2699198
We would like to thank all the parishes that helped provide the information and hope our research is of value to them. We also hope that the information will have a democratic value to the community.
If you have any questions or wish to find out more about the final research please contact Ben Worthy
Lecturer in Politics
Birkbeck College, University of London
See my staff page here http://www.bbk.ac.uk/politics/our-staff/academic/ben-worthy
View my research blog on Freedom of Information here https://opendatastudy.wordpress.com
How effective are systems of transparency, such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests? We sent selected parishes either an FOI request or a simple ‘ask’ or question, seeking an organisation chart.
Looking across both request and ask we found:
- FOI triggers more responses and requests are more than twice as effective as simple informally asking. 20.4 per cent of FOIs got a response as against 9.2 per cent of asks-so an FOI is more likely to get a response than just asking. For parish councils, the smallest bodies staffed by part-time staff often with very little funding, these results are positive.
- The first step is the hardest and the bottleneck appeared to be over emails and requests getting lost or going into junk.
- FOI triggers more compliance. Parish councils which received FOI requests were more likely to send the requested document and to make it public.
- Size doesn’t matter as although resources and commitment may influence how open a body is, in this case it appears the size of the parish or pre-existing level of opennessappears to make little difference to responsiveness.
- FOI requests get stronger not weaker the further up the chain of asking they go, indicating strong levels of support within the system. For example, when asked to publish charts on the website, 3.2 per cent of parishes responded to the ‘ask’ and 9.4 responded to the FOI, which is three times as responsive.
See the full paper here Worthy, Ben and John, Peter and Vannoni, Matia, ‘Transparency at the Parish Pump: A Field Experiment to Measure the Effectiveness of Freedom of Information Requests’ (December 4, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2699198