FOI requests, done right, can yield impressive results - but journalists need to spend time thinking about exactly what questions they want answeredCredit: by andrewrennie on Flickr. Some rights reserved
When journalists are submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests they will often be keen to get a response as soon as possible, so it is key for the reporter to ensure their request is as good as it can be to avoid any delays.
This guide brings together advice from two journalists with extensive experience in requesting data under the FOI Act, as well as an FOI officer who will offer some pointers from the perspective of the person handling the request.
First let's remind ourselves of the legislation. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been in force since 2005, and in a nutshell sets out the "general right of access to information held by public authorities".
The Act goes into detail about the rights of the individual, and the requirements of public authorities when it comes to the requested disclosure of information, as well as the 23 exemptions which can mean disclosure being refused. There is also a helpful FAQ on the Act on the Information Commissioner's Office website.
So beyond the basics, what advice is there for journalists on how to submit the most effective requests for information they think should be released? The first step is to do your research.
Do your research
Paul Francis, political editor of the Kent Messenger Group, who submits one or two requests each week, said before he puts the request together he will ask himself the questions he wants the public authority to answer.
"That's a very effective way of framing your request, to sit down and set out in draft form what is it that I'm trying to get to. What questions do I want answered as a result of the release of this information? I think that's a very good way of framing your request so it gets to the information you're after."Sit down and set out in draft form what is it that you're trying to get to. What questions do you want answered as a result of the release of this information?Paul Francis
Digital publishing director of Trinity Mirror regionals David Higgerson, who regularly writes about Freedom of Information requests on his blog, added that part of this research would be to check the correct email address of the FOI officer.
"Don't just expect it to be able to go to the council's main email address," he said, adding that contact details can usually be found on Whatdotheyknow, the MySociety platform which publishes FOI requests.
He also said that getting terminology correct can also be a time-saver.
"Do research around the thing that you're asking for in the first place. That can boil down to something as simple as using the right terminology. I know of a FOI request about bed blocking that was knocked back because the NHS trust said they didn't know what bed blocking was, 'but did we mean delayed discharge?'
"Spend time thinking about the questions you're going to ask. Bear in mind there's a cost limit of £450 of officer time that can go into a FOI request."
FOI officer Paul Gibbons, who is part of the #SaveFOI campaign and runs the FOI Man blog, featuring his own guide to submitting requests, also spoke of the importance for requesters to "do some research".
"Check the authority's website and make sure the information is not already available," he said, adding that in some cases the information may have been included in an authority's publication scheme or in another FOI request response on Whatdotheyknow.
Be fairly specific
Getting the question pitched right is "absolutely key", Higgerson said.
"Don't ask a ridiculously broad question, but at the same time don't be so specific that you effectively box-off different parts of the information you're requesting."
Francis similarly said "journalists need to be cautious about casting their request too widely".Journalists need to be cautious about casting their request too widelyPaul Francis
"If you're asking for data which covers a long period think carefully about whether the authority might say, we have some of that information but it would take us far too long to get that information together and so we're going to turn your request down.
"Journalists need to be specific and clear about what it is they're after, so making your request coherent and intelligible is important. Don't take for granted the authority will be able to interpret your request or read into your request what you want if you've not spelt it out clearly enough.
"Be as clear as you can and as specific as you can about what you're after."
Gibbons concurs: "This sounds terrible, but don't be greedy".
"The temptation is to throw everything into a request and try and get everything out of it in one go. But the likelihood is if you do that it may go over the cost limit and therefore the authority will refuse it on those grounds, so that's going to cost you time.
"The best thing to do is to think of FOI as a long process, a slow burning process of getting information. It's not something you're going to get an answer on quickly, but it can be very effective if you're trying to build a big investigation at getting information about an authority.
"Just making an initial request for a reasonable amount of information, and then if you have further questions following up from your original FOI request is a good way to do things."
Take inspiration from others, but give credit where it's due
Higgerson said journalists should not be worried about copying FOI requests made by others in other regions, "because ultimately if it works in one area it should work in another".
"But if you're using FOI requests that have been on Whatdotheyknow or you're using the results of someone else's FOI request, I would say this time and time again, contact the person who put in the FOI request to find out why they put it in, but at the very least attribute the person who put the FOI request in.
"As journalists we all get infuriated when other journalists just lift our stories, so I guess it's doubly infuriating if you're a member of the public seeing the details you've released under the Freedom of Information Act have suddenly been picked up and claimed as a reporter's exclusive."
Ask for schedule of documents
Francis said in some cases journalists should ask for a schedule of documents to help give them "a more rounded picture".
"One of the misunderstandings about the Act is that there's a statutory right to documents, when in fact the statutory right is to information ... If you think your request is going to touch on issues, like was there a confidential report into something that went wrong in the town hall, make sure you ask for a list of all the relevant documents.
"The same applies to requests where you're asking for information perhaps contained in correspondence, exchanged in emails or letters or briefing notes. If you have that schedule it helps you get a more rounded picture. Then submit other requests if you think there are other areas to explore."
Using FOI requests for 'fishing expeditions'
Francis said public bodies are sometimes concerned about journalists carrying out fishing expeditions, but he is "not convinced by the argument".
"I think there are occasions in which, what are derided as fishing expeditions, can throw up information which is important and in the public interest.
"Where public bodies are concerned is over what they regard as the inconsequential nature of requests and the way in which sometimes interpretations are put on the information they choose to disclose.
"Sometimes journalists will use these tactics in order to pursue something they're aware of there being potential interest in, but without trying to alert the authority they're trying to hone in on one particular aspect.
"So I understand why some authorities do baulk at the idea of journalists throwing in what they regard as fishing expeditions, but I think sometimes those trawls can throw out interesting catches."
Higgerson advises journalists to be careful to ensure they make contact with FOI officers individually.
"What I'd suggest is if you work in an area with eight primary care trusts, send the FOI request individually to that officer. You should be trying to build up a relationship with that FOI officer because they do want to work with you but if you start pinging out an FOI request that's going out to eight different FOI officers in one email that doesn't really say you're particularly interested in building up a good working relationship".
FOI officer Gibbons said "a lot of journalists make round robin requests" and that he can appreciate why.
"Just be careful. Make sure you've done your research and you're only sending it to authorities that are relevant. There have been a number of occasions when I've received a round robin request asking for things that clearly aren't for a university."
Remember - the FOI officer may not be the decision maker
"Try and be polite", Gibbons asks, adding that one example of the ways "a lot of requesters", journalists and non-journalists, can "get the backs up of FOI officers and other public officials is just by being rude and being a bit aggressive in the tone of their FOI request".
"I think being polite goes a long way. Obviously they don't have to be, we're still under an obligation to answer an FOI request, but it does make things work much more smoothly if people are polite and remember there's a human being on the other end when they submit a request."Be polite - remember, there's a human being on the other end when you submit a requestPaul Gibbons
Francis said that "a lot of FOI officers I come across are genuinely committed to the principles of the Act".
They are "probably more engaged in the idea that public bodies need to be open and transparent and not secretive", he added, but that they may "come up against opposition by more senior people and sometimes politicians who take a very different view about whether something ought to be disclosed".
"For the journalist it's important to have a cordial relationship with FOI officers, but it's also equally important to bear in mind they're not always the ones taking the final decisions on requests.
"They act as a way of sending the request to the right people, perhaps giving advice on the response, but they are themselves often not directly the people bringing together the information or making recommendations on what ought to be disclosed or what ought to be withheld."
Give context to the data
Higgerson urged journalists to "resist the temptation to just come up with a really good headline", when they first receive a response to their FOI request, if extra context needs to be added.
One "textbook" example he shares on his blog is of the expenditure of the Metropolitan police service on the speaking clock, which when broken down by the numbers of staff (as demonstrated in his blog post with the example of Guardian journalist James Ball's approach to the story), gives readers greater context to the overall figure.You just have to keep questioning the data you've got back and whether it's enough for a balanced fair storyDavid Higgerson
"You just have to keep questioning the data you've got back and say to yourself 'is this data enough to produce a balanced fair story?'"
"... When you get your data back, look at it as independently as you can do. Try and put to the back of your mind that that piece of data on its own could make a good splash, and just ask what other context you need to add from other sources."
Appealing a rejection
So what should a journalist do in the event their request is refused?
"The first stage of pursuing your request is to go through the authority's internal appeals process", Francis explains.
"My experience is that by and large most appeals have in my experience failed and if that's the case, that means you have to take up your appeal with the Information Commissioner, and you have a statutory right to take up an appeal with the Information Commissioner.
"If the Information Commissioner upholds the original decision of the authority to refuse the request then you have a further right to appeal to a tribunal, who will take another look at the request.
"Although it can be time consuming my advice would always be take it as far as you can. If you made a request in the first instance it's something you feel is important and ought to be released so why not pursue it to the last possible point at which you can?
He added that journalists will have to make a "judgement call" on whether they want to report that the request has been refused or not.
"Sometimes journalists will just prefer to keep the fact an authority has refused something under their hat for a while while it goes through the appeals process, sometimes it's a case of turning the rejection into a story.
"It depends on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes journalists will decide rejection is a story, sometimes they will keep it quiet for a little while. Another thing to bear in mind is sometimes if you do a 'public body refuses to tell' story it does alert other journalists to the fact you're pursuing something they may also take an interest in."
- Listen to this Journalism.co.uk podcast about the current impact of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and its future, featuring interviews with Francis, Higgerson and Gibbons
- Journalism.co.uk runs a 1-day course on how to make Freedom of Information work for you. Here are the details.