Following up on our post about new FOI guidelines, Cleland Thom has compiled a list of excuses sometimes used by officials to refuse an FOI request, and how to use the guidelines to get past those. Some of the highlights:
- “Your request was sent to the wrong department.
WRONG: it just has to be sent to the authority concerned, not to any individual or department.
- “You haven’t told us which documents you want.
WRONG: the Act says you can ask for information. You don’t have to name specific documents. It’s up to the authority to find all the information you want. In fact, if you ask for specific documents, you may just get those, and miss other things.
- Sorry, but it’s not my job to help you.
WRONG: authorities have a legal duty to explain your rights and help you submit an FOIA request.
- My job’s just to provide information – not to answer questions or explain it.
WRONG: the guidelines tell staff: … ‘This doesn’t prevent you providing answers or explanations as well, as a matter of normal customer service’.
- “Sorry, we ignored your request because we couldn’t understand it.
WRONG: Staff can contact you and ask for clarification.
- “I’m not answering that – I don’t like your tone.
WRONG: Staff must ignore the tone of your request.
- “Sorry, but your request wasn’t clear enough. We didn’t deal with it.
WRONG: the authority should contact you ASAP to get clarification, and maybe offer help.
- “We don’t have this information – and I don’t know who does.
POSSIBLY: the authority will usually tell you if it does not hold the information you asked for. But it does not have to tell you who holds it, though they might point you to someone else if they know.
- “I can’t tell you whether or not we hold this information.
POSSIBLY: in some circumstances, an authority can issue a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND) response.
- “We can’t give you the information, and I’m not going to tell you if we hold it or not.
WRONG: staff should tell you if they hold information that they have refused to give you, but they don’t have to explain it. See 20 above, though.
- “We can’t give you this information – it’s full of errors.
WRONG: staff still have to give you the information, even if it contains inaccuracies or is out of date. But they should tell you, and may offer additional information to put it in context.
- “We can’t give you this, it’s marked for deletion.
WRONG: staff have been told it’s not good practice to continue with a scheduled deletion if someone has requested the information. It’s a criminal offence for them to delete information because it could create embarrassment or bad publicity.
- “Sorry, you can’t have this information in printed format.
WRONG: you can state format you want at the time you make your request.
- “I’m not going to help you – you’re a pain in the neck.
WRONG: Authorities can reject requests that are ‘vexatious’. But this applies to the request, not the person asking it. A request can be vexatious if:
- it creates too much work
- your tone or manner is discourteous
- the request is obsessive
- there’s no value in the request.”
Following the previous video of Heather Brooke on the Help Me Investigate blog, Heather provides further tips on using the Data Protection Act on Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare.
Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:
And on using the Data Protection Act:
As part of a series of interviews for Help Me Investigate, Freedom of information (FOI) campaigner and investigative journalist Heather Brooke gives her tips on investigating public bodies, including testing official statements and identifying the information you need.
Wobbing Europe reports on how one journalist used Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in another country to obtain information that led to a government minister's resignation:
"During a critical phase in their reporting Dahlin and Geist asked for access from the Swedish authorities in order to find out if, and when, the Nordic ministers had informed each other on how to interpret the convention.
"?We took a chance, and got a positive cultural chock. The Swedish ministry excused for not being able to answer immediately and then returned the day after. They never asked us who we were or our purpose,? Anton Gleist, says and adds:
"?Later we found out that the Swedes were given the factual information from the Danish ministry and then passed it on to us. But the Danes only came up with an answer weeks later. It was groteque.?
"A bit later also the Norwegians and the Finns provided the Danish reporters with information they were not given at home."
"The reporters could thus demonstrate that the Danish minister had known how differently the other Nordic countries interpreted the very same convention, more than a year before she confessed to a committee at the Danish parliament."
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, announced last week that private emails are covered by FoI laws. This clarification in FoI law allows researchers, academics, campaigners and journalists to request the private emails of government officials.
The information commissioner has decided to allow email requests into FoI law since the revelations that members of the Department of Education, headed by Michael Gove, were encouraged to share important information via email in an attempt to avoid FoI requests.
Commenting on the news, Mr Graham stated: “It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form”.
Surprisingly, some FoI campaigners have interpreted ‘all information’ to include text messages and even post-it-notes.
Guidance regarding FoI requests and private emails can be found on the Information Commissioner’s website — just follow the links.
Martin Rosenbaum is the BBC's Freedom of Information expert. As well as using FOI to find stories himself, he helps journalists across the organisation use the FOI Act to access information on public bodies. You can see examples of his work on his BBC page, and find him on Twitter @rosenbaum6. In this video he gives some tips on writing FOI requests, including being specific about dates and knowing which organisation holds the information you're looking for.
MySociety's Tom Steinberg and others have been compiling a list of open data and 'civic software' projects from around the world. These include tools for submitting Freedom of Information requests, parliamentary monitoring, campaign finance and lobbying data, among other fields.?
You can find the spreadsheet here
Last week saw another breakthrough for the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) was brought under its scope. Aiming for “transparency and openness” the FOS is to become public as it was suggested in January this year.
Still, the FOS will not be fully public as there are restrictions to what questions it can answer. To start with, personal information will not be disclosed (as it falls under the Data Protection Act) and any information given in confidence or details that fall under other Acts will also remain private.
According to ifaonline.co.uk the FOS said that it “already accepts and fulfils requests for information.” In response a comment on their website reads: “You learn something new every day. I thought FOS stood for Furtive, Obstructive and Secretive.”
The Independent Financial Advisors website has put together a list of question for the FOS (which you can find here) and some tips for “good requests” that include being specific and asking for documents that do exist rather than documents that might exist or that should exist. (For more general tips on FOIs check James Ball’s on Help Me Investigate.)
Finally, as the FOS prouds itself for answering over 1 million enquires a year, do you reckon that number might be doubled now?
Brigitte Alfter, a specialist in using FOI laws across Europe (often called ‘wobbing’) has emailed about a new mailing list on the topic.
Established via the Wobbing.eu network, she says:
“The idea is to share information, experience, developments, new stories, get advice from colleagues and give advice to others.
“The list was installed after a meeting in May in Brussels, where we founded a European Data Journalism Network including CAR pioneers, the Farmsubsidy team, FOI journalists and programmers.”
At the end of September, the Department for Communities and Local Government produced a new code of practice which aims to encourage Local Authorities to improve their openness and transparency. The goal is that the code will encourage the publication of more Local Authority data, which will in turn improve local knowledge and ‘spark more improvements in the way services are delivered’.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles seems very impressed with the new code saying “The code sets out clear expectations. It will help unlock more information and increase accessibility for everyone, taking us one step closer to our ambition to be the most transparent government in the world.”
It all sounds very good, but what does the new code bring to the table? Overall the message is quite clear – local authorities should publish their data by default. It seems good in theory, but local authorities already have a great justification for publishing their information. The increasing cost of complying with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests was said to be around £34m in November 2010 and anecdotal evidence suggests the number of requests are continuing to rise. Making more data available – and in a way which it is easily located – would help authorities to cut the workload and cost of dealing with FOI requests.
On that basis it’s easy to see why a number of Local Authorities have already adopted some of the points within the code. For example, one of the minimum requirements set out by the code is that expenditure over £500 is published, but even the accompanying press release notes that currently Nottingham City Council is the only council not already doing this on a regular basis – so is there any need to include this?
The press release goes on to say that “ministers are minded to make the Code a legally binding requirement to ensure authorities can be held fully accountable to the local people they serve.” Even if this becomes the case, there are already numerous Local Authorities who can’t – or don’t – comply with transparency laws that already exist.
In the short term the code should aid FOI requesters in their pursuit of information, by providing them with official guidelines with which to base their requests. It may even help to reinforce the idea that the Government are in favour of greater transparency. In the longer term I imagine some of the more upstanding Local Authorities will implement this new code of practice – a few might even go further. It will be interesting to see how the code is implemented in some of the more transparency shy Local Authorities though, after all it’s these authorities that generally hold the more interesting information.