I’ve been back on the Freedom Of Information Act training treadmill over the last fortnight and one of the debates we often have is around where using FOI should sit in the life of a story. On one hand, it can be a way of getting a story which you otherwise wouldn’t get, but is there a danger that we default to using FOI too quickly? If we do use FOI too often, is there a danger press officers will just start telling us to ask for everything under FOI?
It’s something I’ve given a bit of thought to during the three-and-half-hour journey back from Reading on a Cross Country train, and hopefully asking these questions before submitting an FOI will ensure you get the best results every time:
1. Is this information available elsewhere?
Public authorities have a deserved reputation for being secretive at times so it’s an obvious shout to assume that information you’re after won’t be instantly available, but it’s always worth checking an organisation’s website to see what is available. One of the most popular FOI requests to deliver results for the regional press over the last year was the one about crime committed by pensioners. Whereas reporters seeking for the information from Avon and Somerset Council would need to get the information under FOI, Greater Manchester Police was able to point people to the information its website. ‘Information available elsewhere’ is one of the reasons an authority can refuse to disclose information although they should tell you where you can find it – but why wait 20 days when the information is already out there.
2.Will they release the information to me without going through FOI?
An easier question for a journalist to ask than, say, a member of the public because journalists benefit from having access, generally, to press office – although this can be a double-edged sword. That said, faced with the choice for a 20-day wait for information released under FOI and the possibility of the organisation releasing it straight away, it’s got to be worth asking the question. The downside here would be that there’s no obligation for the press office to release all the information, and they aren’t bound by the Freedom of Information Act.
3. Is there another way of getting this information?
One colleague recently said to me that the problem with FOI is that it can give the impression that some of the old skills for getting information – building contacts which leak for example – are no longer needed. With in excess of 20 reasons to exempt information, organisations have a number of options at their disposal when it comes to finding a reason not to release information. A contact who can leak information will often have no concerns about reasons for withholding information, so it’s always worth thinking if there’s someone who will slip you the information.
4. Do I need to think about jargon in my FOI request?
If you reach a point where you feel FOI is the best route, make sure you do some research on the issue first, looking out for technical jargon which will be relevant to your request. Doing this has two benefits: It makes your FOI request look more thorough and it reduces the chances of an active misunderstanding of your FOI request. For example, hospitals and councils don’t monitor ‘bed blocking’ but they do monitor ‘delayed discharges.’
5. Are there examples of the information being released elsewhere?
If there’s information you are seeking, spend some time seeing if similar information has been released elsewhere. For example, one common FOI request knocked back by police forces is the request for the number of speeding tickets issued, broken down by speed camera. But Transport For London sees it differently, and has revealed its most profitable camera. Mentioning other authorities release similar information when making your FOI request could help.
6. What reasons for refusal could a public body come up with?
A list of reasons which organisations can use to refuse FOI requests can be found here. The ones which are marked ‘qualified exemptions’ are the ones where an authority must consider it to be in the public interest not to release the information. By including reasons in your Freedom Of Information request about why it IS in the public interest to release the information, you can make it harder for an authority to go down the route of denying you the information. An excellent example of this can be found in Heather Brooke’s FOI request to Birmingham City Council about the cost of its website.