Tips on Freedom of Information requests from James Ball

A couple months ago James Ball came to spend a day teaching Freedom of Information and other skills to the MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University. Here are some of his tips:

  • Ring the body before you send any FOI request (their press office, for example) and make it clear that a refusal to provide the information you're asking for will make a really good story too, e.g. 'Culture of secrecy'
  • Avoid asking for personal information – individuals and junior staff are exempt (but not senior staff, i.e. at Level 5 or above of the civil service scale; Director level and other senior staff – e.g. heads of departments – at a local level)
  • Ask for information to be 'anonymised if necessary' to avoid being refused on privacy grounds
  • Ask for street-level detail where possible and relevant
  • Ask for minutes of meetings: steering groups, advisory boards – and ask for the names of the members of those groups
  • If they limit information on the basis of possible 'patchwork' identification argue the case on why it makes little difference
  • If the FOI is refused, ask for it to be taken to internal review and make your case strongly. Internal reviews should be completed within 40 working days. If it fails then, you can take it to the Information Commissioner, but this is likely to take a further 6-12 months at least (some 5-year-old appeals are still waiting for judgements). The story then is likely to be that they have been that they were 'forced to reveal'. Beyond this it goes to the Information Tribunal (you will need a lawyer) and the High Court.
  • Keep up to date with information commissioner rulings at – create a crib sheet of useful rulings to quote and a register of databases mentioned

If you have any other tips, please let us know in the comments.

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