Better case management of FOI and SAR requests

Full Application: Funded

In response to an earlier discovery process around Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and Subject Access Requests (SARs), Hackney made a set of process improvements, commissioned an open source service that provides a simple user journey for members of the public for making FOI requests, and procured a closed source commercial case management system in order to meet our immediate requirement for a back-end solution.

We want to work together with our partners to conduct some further discovery and an alpha project looking at the user journey for council staff who manage and respond to FOI requests and SARs in order to prototype approaches to the unmet user needs we have discovered, and understand whether a digital solution and data standards could better support these needs and allow them to handle requests from the public more efficiently.

We’d like to develop a prototype of an end-to-end open-source solution that includes reporting, and subsequent publishing of non-personal requests. The main objectives would be to assess the potential for increasing efficiency and ease of use for the council, and better meeting the needs of citizens, both from ease of use and response time perspectives, and in such a way that supports reuse by other councils.

A successful outcome would be an end-to-end set of user interface prototypes for a request handling system that have been validated by user testing in multiple councils and a clear recommendation based on a business case on whether to proceed into a beta project for either open-source request handling software, or a set of open standards around request handling. In either case, the user research report created should outline.

We intend to work in partnership with mySociety, the external company who we commissioned to do the original user research and development around the public side of our FOI and SAR service, who will coordinate and lead the alpha project. mySociety is committed to the principles of the Local Digital Declaration, and has a history of agile development and working in public with local authorities, and will help us get started on the project as soon as possible.

We’ll work in an agile way in 6 to 8 two week sprints, aiming to deliver something of value that can be shared and evaluated at the end of each sprint and working in public to develop the final output of the alpha project. We’ll begin by breaking down the epic user stories around unmet needs in request handling from Hackney’s discovery work into smaller prioritised user stories, and sharing the process mapping work done with partner councils. Then we’ll hold a process mapping workshop and conduct interviews with partner councils to identify similarities and differences in processes, points of inefficiency and common or separate unmet needs. We’ll create low fidelity prototypes to address the highest priority unmet needs and points of inefficiency and draft some initial data standards around those processes. We’ll share these in ‘show and tell’ sessions and iterate on them taking the feedback we’ve received into account.

To ensure we are making progress against our final objectives at the end of each sprint we shall assess how much progress we have made against the completion of our additional discovery tasks, and how that is impacting the features we shall take through to prototyping in the alpha development.  In particular we shall share progress made against our intended new features, highlight any major gaps we identify in our thinking, or where we have changed direction or set aside any initial hypotheses.

Around 475,000 FOI requests were received by local authorities in 2017 – an average of 1,100 requests per authority (mySociety, forthcoming research). A significant amount of time and resources are spent in triaging and responding to requests. Hackney receive around 2,000 FOI requests a year and employ 1.5 Information Governance FTEs on FOI with service champions also spending time responding.

It’s hard to estimate the overall cost of responding to FOI requests, but using the (relatively high) £160 per request estimate created by the Ministry of Justice in 2011 would produce an overall cost to local government in 2017 of £75 million.

FOI and SAR handling practice across (and within authorities) can vary – there is an opportunity to share knowledge, establish consensus on best practice and to support this practice with digital services and data standards, producing significant cost savings across the sector.

Our work has demonstrated that the volume of work required can be reduced by process changes and digital services rooted in user centered design. For example, early indications from analytics are that the open source front end service developed in Hackney which highlights existing information from a public disclosure log and curated resources in order to prevent unnecessary requests may be initially preventing around 4% of requests.

Unmet needs, such as the handling of complex requests, take a significant proportion of time and effort. Better access to reporting and analytics on request handling could be a significant help within councils in identifying where processes could be improved e.g. by highlighting statistics on the outcomes of internal reviews, or usage of exemptions that might indicate a need for further staff training.  

Common data standards that encompass all the required elements of a request could be used as a guide across the sector in designing public facing services and prevent costly back and forth getting extra information from requesters.

In our original discovery project we analysed the process information governance staff follow in FOI and SAR handling within Hackney, to understand how requests are received and processed, what challenges are faced, and where the opportunities are for improvement in process and technology. We produced process maps, conducted interviews with key staff and researched available digital services.  

As a result, we worked to implement process improvements and made a number of initial changes to our digital services around FOI submissions and management. As an interim measure we replaced our multiple back end systems with a single commercial case-management solution and worked with our partner to prototype and iterate a front end solution to meet the needs of members of the public who want to make FOI requests – described in ( and (

The initial process of commissioning and using a commercial case-management system and prototyping a front-end has confirmed our belief that there are further areas where our work could be better supported by a user needs driven iterative approach which we intend to explore with this new funding

Unmet needs identified include:

  • Notification of staff of new actions needed so that requests aren’t delayed
  • Support for different staff roles and their needs for different views of the process
  • More efficient handling of complex requests
  • Better reporting to support insight into process improvement e.g. via training on exemption use.

We will share with partners our user research report from Hackney’s discovery work mapping the processes staff follow when handling requests. We will then run workshop sessions and series of interviews with project partners to elicit process maps and unmet needs from other authorities in order to compare them – either in person or virtually via video calls.

We shall blog our progress and approach taken, as we did in our discovery project. This will help identify other local authorities who wish to participate, and test our hypotheses in public with a wider range of interested parties. We’ll share summary process maps from the different councils involved publicly to develop a better understanding of how common they are and where there are differences in practice and potentially different needs for software support.

We’ll also share and update the project on Pipeline ( to raise awareness of what we’re doing and solicit further collaboration.

We expect to produce:

  • A public user research report focused on unmet user needs and process efficiencies in in FOI and SAR handling that contains data from multiple different councils, aiming to span dimensions of expected difference – e.g ‘champion’ model in use in a majority (around 63%) of councils versus centralised approach, size and type of authority, use of digital tools.
  • A business case explaining the cost of process inefficiencies in request handling and making an initial assessment of the potential for savings for two possible further ‘beta’ projects – an open source request management service, and outlining what elements might be useful in creating common data standards around the handling of requests.
  • An end to end user experience prototype for request handling that includes reporting, and subsequent publishing of non-personal requests that has been validated with user testing in several councils.
  • A set of early-stage open data standard proposals for services that handle FOI and SAR requests. These could include data standards for the requests and responses themselves, for disclosure logs, and for internal and external reporting.
  • Some conclusions on whether to develop a ‘beta’ project for a request management service and/or common data standards around request handling.

We’ll work iteratively and in public, publishing technical work (user interface prototypes, draft early stage standards) as we develop them on github and describing our user research, prototyping and business case development process in a series of blog posts to ensure that we’re making visible progress throughout the project and don’t backload the work to the last week of the project timeline.  

Our users are authority staff who participate in the process of handling requests. In the case of Hackney, this includes both Information Governance staff and FOI champions in other services, citizens who make those requests and citizens who might be interested in the responses to previous FOI requests.

Our user research objectives will be to understand:

  • How much variation there is in how authorities handle FOI and SAR requests and to what extent a digital product could effectively support the different contexts in authorities.
  • Whether it makes sense to support the handling of FOI and SAR requests in a single product – so to what extent there are common workflows in the two processes and whether they are handled by the same people in similar ways.
  • To what extent unmet needs identified in discovery processes at Hackney are shared by other authorities, and to what extent an open source solution and/or open data standards could meet them.
  • What performance metrics are used or would be useful across councils to assess the performance of a digital request handling service against its objectives
  • Where a digital product could support efficiency savings in handling FOI requests.

We’ll conduct initial process mapping with authority staff in other councils to understand to what extent their processes differ from those in Hackney. We’ll develop initial low resolution prototypes to address the unmet needs already uncovered and test those prototypes in Hackney and the partner councils. We’ll also do user testing of end-to-end user interface prototypes with members of the public – we’ve found using Hackney service center as a location to be an effective way to recruit participants, so we’ll use this approach again, trying to get in-person feedback from members of the public in at least one other partner organisation.

Hackney has been working on a user research library to act as a common repository for user insights at Hackney, to be extended to other local authorities and charities. It would be great to use this as a central place for sharing user research and prototypes across councils too, so that we can collectively benefit from the user research done on different projects. We would benefit from promotion of this platform to make the research more useful to others through reaching a wider audience.

No funding has been applied for previously. Hackney has invested in previous phases (Discovery for better back office case management and Discovery and development of a front-end solution).