In the 10 years since the Freedom of Information Act came into play there has been more official information published than ever before. Before the ‘right to know’ law was introduced the public had almost no legal way of getting information directly from authorities.
The legislation has brought more transparency to the UK but it’s not without its problems. Delays in answering requests are still rife, authorities don’t always thoroughly consider the public interest in disclosing details, and in a lot of cases basic contact email addresses are not put online.
Two key ways of levering information from public authorities covered by the legislation – of which there are around 100,000 – can include a methodical approach of asking what they hold, before cherry picking a specific document or set, and requesting the email correspondence of those making decisions.
This extract, from the new book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, looks at the best ways to access information by these two methods.
A simple but effective way for journalists to identify what an authority holds is to ask for a list, or schedule, of the information around a particular area. This could be a list of file names on a topic, the subject lines of emails, specific file types held or anything that details the variety of information an authority might hold on the topic you are looking at.
This approach allows you to see what is held by the authority and then follow up with a second request for a specific file, email or piece of information. This method not only allows you to find out what the authority holds about a topic but it also reduces the chances of the authority being able to refuse it on cost grounds.Make a first FOI request about details of what information is actually heldPaul Gibbons, FOIMan.com
Because you can specify a particular of information, it should almost wipe out any potential retrieval and locating time the authority has for finding the information.
For data-based requests it is possible to ask for the fields that make up the database. This approach is favoured by The Times and The Sunday Times data journalist Nicola Hughes. She says:
"Another thing is that sometimes you can’t access the data because there is private information in there – which to a certain extent is misleading. The way to get around that is to ask them the schema of the database and then say I want you to extract only these columns because they don’t understand you can extract partial parts of the data if it is in a database."
Being able to cherry pick the parts of the data, or the particular files that you want, may mean that there is less of a battle to get the information released. FOI expert Paul Gibbons says that, although this type of research is an option available to requesters, it is not one that he often sees used.
"It goes back to that issue about research, you make a first FOI request about details of what information is actually held, you can then look at that list and actually go 'that request sounds really interesting, I will zero in on that'."
The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum echoed this view, describing it as being a "legitimate tactic" to find out how the public authority organises their information.
"If you are interested in a particular area the public authority could have a vast amount of documentation to it, you want to know how to narrow down your request getting that list of files is actually the tool that enables you to narrow down that request because actually you can say I want this one," Rosenbaum, says.
Even if the authority does not hold the information in a pre-determined list and does not have to create new information for the purposes of a request, it is possible to ask for a summary. The Information Commissioner’s guidance states that a public authority is not creating new information in the following circumstances:
- Where it presents information it holds in the form of a list or a schedule.
- Where answering a request requires it to complete simple manual manipulation of information.
- Where information is extracted from a database by searching it in the form of a query.
A very effective request that can be made to find out what is really happening is asking for correspondence – what a particular official, authority or interested party has been saying behind closed doors.
This can reveal the intimate details of what has been discussed on particular issues of public interest, which would not otherwise be made available. Correspondence may also raise awareness of how internal processes and decisions are made.
But requests for correspondence can be some of the most difficult to get results from. In many cases they will contain information that could be embarrassing for officials. Correspondence requests can also contain the personal details of junior public officials who, because of their low-grade role, are entitled to a greater level of privacy than more senior officials.If you can name some individuals it is obviously going to narrow [a request] down quite a bitPaul Gibbons, FOIMan.com
Where this is the case, their details should be redacted, rather than the entire response refused.
Requesting correspondence revealed that scientists developed a "reasonable" worst-case scenario when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was damaged by earthquake and tsunami. The Guardian accessed 30 documents that said teams specially trained in radiation would be deployed to screen passengers coming from Japan to the UK.
After the 2011 riots in the UK, emails disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act showed courts were encouraged to ignore sentencing guidelines when dealing with those caught rioting.
When asking for "all correspondence", Gibbons says it is unlikely that an authority will be able to provide it due to the size of authorities and the time it would take to collate, retrieve and extract the information. His advice for making requests for correspondence is to do the research before making it.
"If you can name some individuals, i.e. this person and that person, it is obviously going to narrow it down quite a bit. Keep the timescale quite tight, say within a six month period, or a defined period," Gibbons said.
For correspondence requests on popular subjects that may be discussed, or within large teams, it may be worth narrowing the request to an even smaller timescale.
Matt Burgess is the founder of FOI Directory and author of Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, available to order through Routledge for £26.99.
Journalism.co.uk readers can get a 20 per cent discount using the code MB20 at check out, until Saturday 15 August.
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