What to do when an FOI response is not provided in the form asked for

Heard the one about the FOI request for data to be provided in an Excel spreadsheet? The authority printed it out, scanned it, and sent a PDF version of the scan.

You’ll forgive the journalist for being suspicious when an authority goes to such extremes to make it hard to interrogate their data.

In cases like these it’s worth looking at the Information Commissioner’s awareness guidance 29 on ‘means of communication’ (PDF):

This quotes Section 11(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which stipulates that authorities should comply with your preference for “a copy of the information in [a] form acceptable to the applicant … so far as is reasonably practicable”

The key phrase here is “reasonably practicable”. In the example above, there is no excuse that simply sending the original Excel file – instead of a scanned PDF – was not “reasonably practicable”. 

What then? Well, you should ask for an explanation, and make a formal complaint to the authority quoting the ICO guidance and Section 11(1) or the FOI Act. If that doesn’t get any results, write to the ICO. Here’s the full passage from the guidance:

“If a public authority decides that it is not reasonably practicable to provide the information in the form preferred by the applicant … the authority must tell the applicant and give its reasons. The duty on the public authority is then to provide the information by any means which are reasonable in the circumstances. 

“If the applicant is not satisfied with the decision and wants to make a complaint, they must complete the public authority’s complaints procedure (if there is one). Once this process is complete, if the applicant remains dissatisfied, they may write to the ICO.”

If you are unlucky to deal with an authority which is regularly uncooperative in this manner, it may be worth quoting the awareness guidance 29 and Section 11(1) of the Act in your request for the information to be provided in spreadsheet form, for example:

“I would like this information to be provided in spreadsheet format (xls or csv) in line with Section 11(1) of the FOI Act and ICO Awareness Guidance 29.

Also useful more broadly when looking at the way a request is handled are the guidelines on ‘Request handling’ on the ICO website.

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