On Thursday, I was invited to speak at a network of FOI officers for the Yorkshire and Humberside region. In the presentation I put together, I talked about some of the challenges journalists face with FOI, and mentioned (or, in tabloid speak ‘named and shamed’) some organisations which sometimes make life difficult. One irony here was that the event took place in Huddersfield Town Hall, operated by Kirklees Council, the authority whose council leader likes to intervene in the FOI process personally.
That said, it was a learning experience for me (In fact, I probably got more out of it than the FOI officers who had to listen to me!). And during the course of my presentation, I asked what things we, as journalists, could do better when submitting FOI requests. Here are five answers I got back:
1. Round robins: Journalists often put in round-robin FOI requests, but how many times have journalists gone into print without getting all the responses back? The FOI officers said it frustrated them when they saw an FOI-based story going into print before all the responses had arrived. Of course, if one authority is weeks and weeks late with a response, that can’t be helped – but before the 20-day time period has elapsed.
2. Do your own research: This one got a lot of nodding from around the room. The FOI officers said they were often irritated by FOI requests from journalists who clearly hadn’t done their own research in advance. This includes getting FOI requests for documents which are already publicly available, and requests which asked for documents relating to X from public meetings.
3. Don’t say ‘did not reply’ before 20 days: Quite rightly, journalists state when public bodies don’t reply to FOI requests. It’s quite a handy way of trying to shame a public body into action (it doesn’t always work), but the FOI officers did complain that it’s particularly irritated to be pronounced as ‘not replying’ when the 20 days hadn’t actually passed. Ringing to find out where an FOI request is in the process is also a good idea.
4. Don’t second-guess exemptions: I have to admit, this is something I’ve reccomended in the past, largely because I thought it was useful way of showing that you’d thought through your request. But the FOI officers were quite adamant: Don’t second guess possible exempltions. “It’s patronising,” said one. “It’s our jobs to know this anyway,” said another, while a third said: “When I get to that bit, I just stop reading.” So for a happy (or happier) FOI officer, less is more. In hindsight, I remember my reaction when PRs used to say “It’s all written for you already.”
5. Don’t think FOI is the full story: FOI officers have a job to give you the information you ask for, but, as with data journalism, context is everything. That doesn’t make it right for the leader of Kirklees Council to veto FOI releases if they don’t have context, but it is important for journalists to remember. In other words, FOI is the start of the story, not the story in itself.