“I am the head of Chemistry in a Scottish Secondary school. One of my senior pupils is investigating methods of determining copper and iron in 2p coins.”

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/copper_content_in_a_2p_coin#incoming-20865

The answer supplied ten days later was 7% Copper and 93% mild steel (with tolerances also disclosed).

This is a really good simple example of the benefit to the public from Freedom of Information laws in general and WhatDoTheyKnow.com in particular.

I have incorporated the Royal Mint’s response into this Wikipedia article:

Two pence (British decimal coin)

Recently, a WhatDoTheyKnow.com volunteer was answering a query from a user of the site and was surprised to learn that the site already had the Deer Commission for Scotland listed. It was noted that Whatdotheyknow.com has quite a lot of public bodies as of 12:30pm today there are 3,303 public authorities sites on the site although 74 of these authorities are now marked as defunct. You might also want to exclude the 27 Water Companies, although these are ‘public authorities’ for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations. That still leaves about 3,200 active public authorities. So the next question for me is: how many public bodies are there in the UK?
The answer is no-one knows.

“We discovered early on that there are no precise figures for the very large number of people who are appointed to this great variety of public bodies and positions, nor even for how many public bodies exist.”

Select Committee on Public Administration Fourth Report (2003)

So if no-one has a complete list how does Whatdotheyknow.com’s list of about 3,200 compare to other lists and directories – who has the most comprehensive list?

The Cabinet Office’s best effort is probably Public Bodies 2008 which puts the number of non-department at 790 (sometimes called Quangos). Added to that there are around 24 Government Departments listed bring the total to 814. These numbers exclude schools, colleges, universities, local government, the police, the NHS, and devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in other words this list of public bodies excludes more than it includes. The Tax Payers’ Alliance put the number of Quangos at 1,162.

What is almost unique about Whatdotheyknow.com’s list of public authorities is that it covers the whole lot (central, regional and local government, Parliament, the NHS, the Police, educational institutions, housing associations, publicly owned companies etc)

I say almost unique because buried in a dark corner of the Office for National Statistics website that is actually quite useful, it is called MA23 or to give it its full name the Sector Classification Guide. In order to prepare ‘National Accounts’ for Europe the Government has to have some kind of list of public sector bodies and MA23 contains that list.

The classification is not decided based on the political considerations of the current government but on internationally agreed definitions e.g. central government s1311, Public non-financial corporations and for this reason is more comprehensive than all the other lists the Government publishes.

MA23 lists the following rows:

  • 1,018 central government bodies
  • 42 central government funds
  • 3 central banks
  • 369 public corporations
  • 5 public insurance corporations and pension funds
  • 377 local government bodies
  • 3 local government funds

I make that about 1,800 in total but many of the rows are not for a single named public authority but for a whole class of public authorities. MA23 certainly does not contain a more comprehensive lists of public authorities than Whatdotheyknow.com but is very useful and includes some less well known bodies such as:

  • Dorneywood Trust
  • Eblex Limited
  • Jebwill
  • Orford Town Trustees
  • World Poultry Science Association
  • Yorkshire and Humber Regional Aggregation Body

The COINS database is less comprehensive and perhaps more influenced by UK politics but it does contain over 1,700 public authorities.