Freedom of Information: Reflections, Limitations, and Opportunities in Social Research

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 11:24
Oral Presentation
Michael COLIANDRIS, Cardiff University, United Kingdom
The UK Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) enables public access to information held by public authorities. Regarded by a small, multi-disciplinary group of social researchers as an ‘overlooked’ method, FOIA presents innovative opportunities for unparalleled access to, and scrutiny of, government departments. This paper reflects upon research conducted into the police use and governance of unmanned aerial vehicles in England and Wales, though UK FOIA’s international counterparts will be relevant to the wider audience. Due in part to the institutional culture of secrecy and suspicion of outsiders, empirical police research is challenging. The initial project was designed according to the methodological opportunities afforded by FOIA over other methods: 1) bypassed ethical issues – consent, privacy, harm, deception – due to the legislation; 2) less resource-intensive so enabled national-scale cross-sectional research design; 3) dislocated the researcher from the institutional culture.

During the course of the project, however, methodological misconceptions emerged. Recurrent barriers to access were encountered, such as non-compliance and applications of ‘exemptions’ (legal justifications for not providing information due to it, in this case, intersecting national security and law enforcement efforts). Limiting the quantity and quality of the data collected, these misconceptions became pertinent to the project. Anticipated opportunities of FOIA-facilitated research gave way to the unanticipated scale of police curating the information they shared. Whilst this project did not ‘fail’ on the whole, significant, unforeseen challenges developed extemporaneously. The disconnect between FOIA legislation and FOIA in practice highlighted familiar challenges in empirical research: access; appropriate theories for interpreting data; methods seemingly incompatible with the research problem. This paper aims to introduce FOIA-facilitated research to the international sociological community, with the author’s experiences serving as guidance for future best practice. It also invites reflections upon how ‘failures’ can stimulate opportunities for re-acquainting ourselves with our methods and research problems.