Freedom of Information Requests as a Tool for Social Science Research

Following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulations earlier this year, we are now more aware than ever of the proliferation of information produced through every day interactions, the nature of its storage and our rights to protect that information. But as a research community, those in the social sciences appear to be less aware of the individual right to access public information through Freedom of Information requests (FOI) and their potential to generate unique data. It has been reported that the majority of requests made since the introduction of this right have been from an “inquisitive general public”, demonstrating the lack of interest from researchers.

FOI requests are probably most commonly associated with investigative journalism and for this reason are sometimes negatively associated with political agendas and trawling exercises. However, these criticisms are arguably extrinsic to the method itself which represents a time and cost efficient option for collecting raw materials used by public authorities. Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, requests can be made to a range of public authorities including government departments, local authorities, the National Health Service, state schools and police forces. Its scope therefore encompasses many research disciplines and can be used to answer a real variety of research questions. You can request not just documents but computer files, photographs, audio or video recordings as well as emails and internal notes. The Information Commissioner also recommends the use of “meta-requests” in which a secondary FOI request is made for all materials related to the original request. This can bring to light interesting new information about the internal treatment of such requests.

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I used FOI requests in my recent masters dissertation research. After submitting twenty two written requests to all of the local authorities in Wales I was able to access copies of their policies on vulnerability for thematic analysis. Although it required a fair amount of organisation to keep track of the requests and ensure the data was stored safely, the method allowed me to conduct a research project with considerable reach within a very limited timescale.

I was interested in the decisions of local authorities in relation to vulnerable persons. With this research focus I did have the option to approach local authorities to arrange observations of their working practices, or I could have submitted a questionnaire. However, observations are clearly very time-consuming and would not have allowed me to access data for the whole of Wales, limiting the comparative quality of my analysis. Also, there is no obligation or time limit to respond to a research questionnaire and readiness to respond can often be contingent on the status of the researcher or previous working relationships. By contrast, a valid FOI request must be responded to within twenty working days; failure to do so gives the requester the right to complain to the Information Commissioner. Response rates for this method are therefore exceptionally high and all requests must be addressed with an “applicant-blind” approach, meaning this method is highly suitable for junior researchers.

Perhaps the greatest practical benefit of FOI research is that there is no requirement for travel or transcription, both of which significantly reduce the cost and timescale of the research project. Requests and responses can be sent and received by email or using online application forms and then stored using research analysis software such as NVivo. Overall, this method is highly accessible and has significant capacity to generate new and exciting research data across the social sciences. It is hoped that its popularity increases alongside our understanding of its benefits and challenges.

Key things to be aware of when conducting FOI research:

  • There are statutory limitations to what can be disclosed. Requests will be rejected if they would take excessive staff time to process, are vexatious or repetitive, and you may face problems if the information requested is sensitive because it relates to criminal investigations or matters of national security. Exemptions can be absolute or qualified, the latter meaning that a public interest test will be applied to any decision.
  • The data you are trying to access may already have been requested, in which case it will be held in the public authority’s online repository of previous responses. For example, see Cardiff Council’s response to my FOI request.
  • Despite the statutory time limit to respond within twenty working days, be realistic and conservative about how long you may be waiting for a response and factor this into research design. Responses to my requests ranged between one and thirty-one working days, which impacted my time for analysis.

If you are aware of any good examples of FOI research in the social sciences please comment and share below.

Further Reading

Savage, A, Hyde, R. 2014. Using freedom of information requests to facilitate research.
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 17(3), pp. 303-317.

Walby, K, Larsen, M. 2011. Access to Information and Freedom of Information
Requests: Neglected Means of Data Production in the Social Sciences. Qualitative
Inquiry 18(1), pp. 21-42.

Walby, K, Luscombe, A. 2017. Criteria for quality in qualitative research and use of 
freedom of information requests in the social sciences. Qualitative Research 17(5), pp.

Walby, K, Luscombe, A. 2018. Ethics review and freedom of information requests in
qualitative research. Research Ethics 00(0), pp. 1-15.

Wilson, J. 2011. Freedom of information and research data. Research Ethics, 7(3), pp.