Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Does FOI Work?


We tried to find out with this experiment, with a little help from English parish councils. See the full article here.


‘How effective are systems of transparency, such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests? The ambitious aims of FOI laws hinge on whether requests produce the desired information for the citizens or groups that use them. The question is whether such legally mandated requests work better than more informal mechanisms. Despite the high hopes of advocates, organizational routines, lack of awareness or resistance may limit legal access and public bodies may seek to comply minimally rather than behave in concordance with the spirit of the law. This article reports a field experiment that compared FOI requests and informal nonlegal asks to assess which is more effective in accessing information from English parish councils. The basic premise of statutory access is borne out. FOI requests are more effective than simple asks and the size or preexisting level of openness of a body appears to make little difference to their responsiveness. FOI requests are more effective in encouraging bodies to do more than the law asks (concordance) than encouraging more minimal levels of legal cooperation, when a body simply fulfils its obligations to varying degrees (compliance). This finding indicates high levels of support for FOI once it is embedded within the system.’

parish-council-4wSee our blog summary and also FOI man’s blog post and analysis.

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Note and Paper on Parish Councils and FOI


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:

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

Tel: 02030738047

See my staff page here

View my research blog on Freedom of Information here

 Research Highlights

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.

Parish mins

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: