Monthly Archives: June 2009

How to investigate

Think something is unjust or unfair – or just curious to know why something happened or how something works? Are you saying “Someone ought to do something”? That someone is you.

Society is only as good as those individuals willing to stand up and ask questions of the people in charge. I’m guessing you’re one of those individuals.

As a seasoned battler with bureaucracy here are my top tips about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to finding things out.

First, though, you might want to know the sort of mindset that helps in an investigation. The good investigator must value his or herself and her right to know. If you paid for it or it’s a public service then you have a right to know how that money is spent or why a decision was made.

An investigator should also have the ability to:

  • Think independently
  • Question received knowledge
  • Laser through bullshit
  • Find facts

What we can’t do at Help Me Investigate is do your investigation for you. And you probably wouldn’t want us to.

Your case is something about which I imagine you feel very strongly and that is always the best motivation for finding out something.

What we will do is provide an environment, tools and a community that can help.

Accessing information is a matter of persistence and will. It took me 5 years of persistent effort and even a High Court case before MPs were forced to disclose their expense receipts. It’s not going to be that difficult to find out why a tree was cut down on your road but the point is that you will need some tenacity and will. Don’t give up at the first hurdle but equally don’t be dispirited if you don’t get results overnight.

The aim of this site is empower people by giving them the tools they need to investigate for themselves and to break investigations up into lots of smaller tasks – ‘challenges’ – that people can complete in their own time. You can find advice on this website and also on my website and book ‘Your Right to Know. There’s nothing we can do that you can’t, and you will have much better knowledge of your particular situation and the people involved.

As for making Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests – I’d recommend you use this website: You can read many other requests (including some of mine) and see how various public bodies respond. The site will also help you keep track of requests and when organisations need to respond.

If you come across a specific hurdle and think we can help, do get in touch.

Tips for creating your own investigation:

1. Be specific

If you want a concrete answer you must ask a concrete question. If you think the council has an unfair parking system try to find a way to quantify that. Ask for a breakdown of tickets issued by street, of revenue raised, etc.

Officials can avoid giving a straight answer to a general question; it’s much harder if you ask a very specific detailed question.

2. Be clear

You must first be clear in your own mind what you want to find out. Then keep your investigation concise.

Have a main point and stick to it. Don’t wander off on personal digressions or gripes. Write grammatically and use a dictionary to spell correctly to avoid being written off as part of the ‘green-ink brigade’.

3. Be reasonable

It’s not always a conspiracy. More likely you’ll find the reason something went wrong was due to incompetence or a failure of communication within the institution.

Avoid personal insults. This leaves you open to being attacked personally yourself and you should want to maintain the moral highground.

4. Manage your expectations

Think in terms of tangible things you can actually do. ‘Get rid of all evil parking attendants’ is not really a manageable goal. Instead think about what you can do: make a phone call, write a letter, send a freedom of information request, do some research, talk to people, campaign.

You should expect to come up against opposition, after all no one likes to admit they are wrong and few people willingly give up power.

You would hope that those in authority understand that in a democracy they serve at the pleasure of the people and that they would welcome the involvement of the citizenry. But I found this is not usually the case and you will have to go some way to collect enough evidence to force change.