You’ll see stories based on freedom of information requests (FoIs) all the time, but what are they and how can you use them?
About the Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 and forced public bodies (read: organisations that are funded by the public purse) to become more accountable by letting individuals find out information about them.
An example of a great – and well known – FoI is the MPs expenses scandal that rocked public confidence in the transparency of Westminster.
Looking closer to home – well, campus – was the revelation that the University of Sussex paid £50,000 in legal fees in an attempt to suspend five student protesters.
Universities and funding bodies (HEFCW and HEFCE) are FoI-able, but as students’ union are independent charities, they aren’t subject to the Act. If you’re a member of one, though, you should look up how to request information as a member – as many unions want to let students know how they operate.
Great stories often start with an “I wonder how much/how often a public body does something”. For example (insert self-promotional klaxon) a conversation held in the pub of “I wonder how many planes have been hit by fireworks?” became a national newspaper story by asking the public body in charge of airplane safety (the Civil Aviation Authority, CAA) to detail all firework-related incidents reported to them.
For more details on the Act FOI guru Matt Burgess has written a must-have book: Freedom of Information: A practical guide for UK journalists.
How to submit an FOI request
If you want to ask a public body for information there are two ways you can go about it. For a guided walkthrough, the whatdotheyknow.com website is valuable help for beginners, but it’s worth remembering that anyone can see what you ask, so others can easily steal your story.
The website is also a really valuable resource to see whether your question has already been asked – and for story inspiration!
For the more advance FOI-using journalist, foi.directory can provide you with the email addresses for most UK FoI departments, or the most appropriate contact at organisations.
For how to submit an FOI request Gov.uk explains:
Contact an organisation in writing to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. This can be by letter; email; or fax.
You should include:
- your name (not needed if requesting environmental information)
- a contact address
- a detailed description of the information you want – eg you might want all information held on a subject, or just a summary
You should get the information within 20 working days. The organisation will tell you when to expect the information if they need more time.
Most requests are free but you might be asked to pay a small amount for photocopies or postage. You’ll be told by the organisation if you have to pay anything.
Some sensitive information isn’t available to members of the public. If this applies, an organisation must tell you why they can’t give you some or all of the information you requested.
They might ask you to be more specific so they can provide just the information you need.
An organisation can also refuse your Freedom of Information (FOI) request if it will cost more than £450 (£600 for central government) to find and extract the information.
If an organisation doesn’t provide you with the information you requested, you should first ask them to review their decision.
You can then complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office if you’re still not satisfied.
A few tips for getting the most out of your FoI requests:
- Make sure you’re very clear and specific
- Remove any bias or emotion from the request
- Specify if they don’t have the information, is there any alternative information you’d like
- Specify if the request is quite large, what to do if it goes over the 16 hours limit
- An obvious but often overlooked tip: make sure you ask the right body – the most appropriate organisation – and to think in advance of asking whether they might hold the data you need.