Guest blog – campaign benchmarking using Freedom of Information

We all know of examples of how the Freedom of Information Act has been used as a powerful and versatile campaigning tool from developing the evidence base of a campaign to gaining crucial information on how decisions are made but have you ever thought about using it to measure the success of your work?

Guest blogger for us Tom Baker has done just that and shares his findings with us.

A few years ago I found that using Freedom of Information was a great Benchmarking tool to see how campaigns I was managing were generating in comparison to others.

Inspired by this back in May, I made the same request to the 18 biggest Whitehall departments and launched my ‘Campaign Totals’ project. I asked that they provide me with;

  1. The total number of campaign letters, postcards and emails that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign they’d received from 1st May 2010 to 1st May 2011.
  2. The breakdown of these numbers by delivery method (letter, postcard and email).
  3. A breakdown by topic and/or organisation(s) where you received more than 500 items of correspondence (through any delivery method) that appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign in the period defined above.

I’ve been publishing the findings on my blog as they’ve trickled in over the summer, and with the last responses back I’ve been able to announce some results.

So what do we know?

A huge amount of campaigning is taking place. Government departments have received at least 946,000 actions in the 12 month period from 1st May 2010 and 1st May 2011.

Actions are being generated by a vibrant civil society. Actions came from 66 organisations that were named in the responses, and that excludes the 76 actions that I wasn’t able to identify an organiser for.

E-actions lead the way but aren’t as dominant as you’d expect. Government departments reported receiving 400,458 email actions in the 12 month period, compared to 262,886 letters, 97,311 postcards and 39,107 petitions. We don’t know the source of 147,163 actions.

I’ve found that there is real variation in numbers between different Whitehall departments. I wasn’t surprised to see the Treasury come top of the survey, as it feels indicative of the importance of the department and George Osborne in a time of declining government budgets. Other departments that received more than 100,000 actions in the 12 month period include No10, DEFRA, DFID and DECC.

The vast majority of actions are being generated by charities or campaigning organisations as opposed to trade associations or other corporate lobbying groups, and the majority of actions are on the issues of:

  • Sustainable Development including Climate Change, nuclear and energy policy.
  • International Development.
  • Animal Welfare.

I’m the first to acknowledge that the information isn’t perfect, for example;

  1. It doesn’t include actions to MPs – With a record intake of new MPs into Parliament many campaigning organisations are likely to have been focusing their campaigning energy on MPs.
  2. It doesn’t tell us which actions influenced policy.
  3. We can’t be certain that the information is comparable between departments – I’ve tested my request with departments for a number of years and I’m confident that I’ve got a request that make sense, but it’s still open to the interpretation by the Freedom of Information Officer responding to my enquiry.
  4. Not every department keeps great records and this raises some really interesting questions about if our actions are actually effective at influencing Ministers.

But despite this I still think that the information gives a fascinating picture into the state of campaigning in the UK at the moment. So much so that I plan to do the same thing next year!

For breakdowns by department, the biggest actions or details of the organisations that have generated the most actions in the last 12 months visit my blog.

Tom Baker

Tom Baker works in the advocacy department of a large international development charity. He’s passionate about building the effectiveness of campaigns and set up his own blog the Thoughtful Campaigner to help provide a space for the sector to do so. 
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