Tag Archive for Guidance

Tips for journalists using FOI

Found this blog post from David Higgerson giving 6 tips to journalists using FOI. Although I’d query some of the more cynical statements there (there does seem to be an assumption that we spend our days working out how best to frustrate journalists), the tips here would in the main be good starting points for anyone thinking of making a request.

In particular, a friend of mine in central government gets very frustrated that people seem determined to ‘demand’ particular information through FOI, when they’ve actually always been very willing to provide the information when asked informally, and would be happy to advise anyone who contacted them. (I have pointed out that if they’re willing to provide the information, there’s nothing stopping them just getting on with it, but their procedures are apparently quite rigid in terms of how they handle enquiries which cite FOI, eg they have to seek approval, which of course slows things down).

Similarly, I’d agree that a bit of research before making your request goes a long way – David gives the example of asking about “delayed discharges” in NHS Trusts instead of “bed blocking”. Mind you, he also suggests that “it reduces the chances of an active misunderstanding of your FOI request”. I know that does on occasion happen, but it might occasionally be good if journalists applied Occam’s Razor when authorities have misunderstood their request, ie the simplest solution (that we actually just didn’t understand it) is usually the correct one. So thinking carefully about how your request is phrased will always help.

It is interesting though, so do take a look.

How to make an FOI request

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.