A couple of weeks ago, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations published a guide to using FOI in campaigning. I’ve now had the chance to read it, and it provides some useful case studies on voluntary organisations’ use of FOI. If you’re a voluntary organisation, or anyone else for that matter that wants to use FOI, you could do worse than take a look.
One thing niggled me as I read the guide though. There is frequent reference to the need for legal advice when using FOI. I just worry about that perception of FOI. It isn’t actually very difficult at all to make requests (as seen from previous posts and comments, it could be argued that it is too easy). There isn’t really a need for legal advice until and unless your request has been refused by the authority, gone through their internal review process, and been considered by the Information Commissioner. That’s quite a long way to go before you need to even consider legal advice. There is plenty of guidance on the Information Commissioner’s website and elsewhere (all pointed out in the NCVO guide) that will help you make a request, and decide if an authority is giving you the run around.
One of the things I don’t really like is the way that FOI has become ‘legalistic’. Some might say that’s public authorities’ fault, and obviously some blame belongs there. But I do think that we’ve been forced to adopt that kind of approach. The early Information Commissioner decisions made clear that responses have to cite section and paragraph of the Act. That might help the ICO and Tribunal to deal with complaints later on down the line, but often I think it just means that responses sound like gobbledegook to requesters. Which in turn promotes an idea that we’re just hiding behind the law. But if we don’t include the gobbledegook, even in the most basic of circumstances, we’re criticised.
Let me give you an example. A former colleague recently responded to an FOI request, and in his response, pointed to the requested information on the website. Now you would think that would satisfy the requester. But no. He then received a complaint that he had failed to cite section 21 of the Act, as he was clearly refusing to provide the information as it was otherwise available to the requester. Well, yes, of course, technically the requester was right. But really? If you’re actually, in effect, providing the information?
The other manifestation of this is the growing trend for requesters to quote half the Act’s provisions in their requests. Increasingly the requests are almost as long as the response! It doesn’t exactly come across as a friendly enquiry to the poor old FOI Officer on the receiving end.
Why is this? Requesters may have had bad experiences in the past. The Media doesn’t help – it reports FOI stories as though the vast majority of FOI requests are refused, and that public authorities are only ever grudging in their compliance. The truth is that the vast, vast majority of requests are answered well within 20 working days, providing all of the information asked for. There are statistics out there to prove it, but also many content requesters (often surprised after everything they’ve been told).
So, if you’re wanting to make a request to a public authority, first take a look at the NCVO’s excellent guide. And then, if you want to pursue your request, just make your request straightforward, well-defined and polite. You’ll make an FOI Officer’s day. And you’ll very probably get everything you want.