"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate."
Tony Blair regretted introducing the Freedom of Information Act, as the above extract from his memoirs on the matter will attest.
But 10 years after the legislation came into full effect it is celebrated by journalists and transparency campaigners as a triumph of democracy.
More than 400,000 requests have been made to government bodies since January 1 2005, and along with the continued digitisation of government databases and a global initiative to promote open information, documents and data for stories are more readily available than ever before. So how does a journalist get to them?
The process for FOI requests has not changed much and can largely be reduced to: research, refine, request.
Research the topic you want to look into and the information already available, refine how you ask the question to be clear, concise and direct, and then make the request.
Journalism.co.uk has previously covered the process in more detail, but there are certain nuances, resources and tips that are important to remember.
Still stuck for an idea? Trinity Mirror's excellent data journalist Claire Miller has a list of over 500 ideas for FOI requests on her blog.
The ultimate UK archive for making an FOI request, WhatDoTheyKnow keeps a directory of nearly 250,000 requests from over 15,000 authorities, therefore helping to speed up the process for future requests.
For one, there's no point carefully wording a letter to an authority's FOI officer and waiting weeks for a reply, only to discover the information is already available.
And if you have a hunch on a certain topic but not sure which government department to question, searching the WhatDoTheyKnow database for keywords will turn up any similar requests and the relevant authority.
David Higgerson, an FOI expert and digital publishing director at Trinity Mirror, recommended staying up to date with WhatDoTheyKnow if FOI requests are going to be a regular part of a journalists work, particularly around specific beats or authorities.[Requests are] a two-way relationship, particularly if you're dealing with the same FOI officer time and time againDavid Higgerson, Trinity Mirror
Part blog, part resource, FOI Man Paul Gibbons checks out the salient issues around the Freedom of Information Act in the UK so you don't have to.
In the blog, recent posts have included a tour and review of the new ICO website, the important difference between FOI and open data (yes, there is one) and a timetable of submission and deadline dates over the holiday period.
But the resources also stand out as useful, with links to court cases and tribunal decisions, a guide to "effective and responsible FOI requests" and a rundown of what information is exempt from the Act and why.
The Information Commissioner's Office
As an organisation charged with upholding information rights in the public interest, the ICO has a lengthy guide on making FOI requests.
What may be more useful, however, is the list of decision notes from when a disputed request has been upheld or denied, giving an insight into what types of information and request may or may not be successful.
The aim of FOI Directory is to collect all the relevant contacts for Freedom of Information requests at all the relevant authorities.
In practice this means more than 10,000 email addresses, a directory which is growing all the time to include as many contacts at public bodies as possible.
At the time of writing the FOI Directory website is currently being updated but is worth bookmarking for when it returns in February.
Higgerson has a long-running section of his blog devoted to FOI and in discussing this article, he raised some additional points to be aware of.
Disclosure logs, where local councils keep public records of FOI requests, are "worth their weight in gold", said Higgerson, and should be at the top of the list for research purposes, or monitored using tools like Change Detection and Ping.it.
Check out this Journalism.co.uk piece on other tools for monitoring your online beat.
When many FOI requests will return datasets, it is important to be able to manage the data.
Higgerson recalled working on a story around local schools but receiving data sets as an Excel document, a Word document, a PDF and even a JPEG.
Asking for the data in a particular format will make life much easier in analysing it later, Higgerson said, and a court ruling last August upheld a complaint from a journalist who received documents as a PDF when he asked for Excel files.
While not every authority will comply in this way, journalists can improve their chances by remembering that making requests is "a two-way relationship, particularly if you're dealing with the same FOI officer time and time again," he said.
Presenting data in an easily digestible manner is also vital, said Higgerson, and it is important to add elements of human interest.
Check out these 'free and easy' data journalism tools from the Pew Research Center.
In an example from his time at the Daily Post, Higgerson and his colleagues put in an FOI request to local health services for cancer patients who had been turned down for experimental treatment as recommended by their doctor.
While the data was "fascinating", it lacked a human face to bring the importance home to readers, so they used CharityComms service AskCharity for expert comment and found a patient from the area to give their opinion.
So while Tony Blair is now more likely to "quake at the imbecility" of introducing the Freedom of Information Act, it is worth remembering his words while in opposition.
A year before his election in 1997, Blair declared his commitment to introducing the FOIA to "signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country."
Journalists are the facilitators of this relationship and, as another General Election nears, that role has rarely seemed so important.
Do you have any other tips, tools or resources for making Freedom of Information requests? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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