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Top Tip: Do your research

Just about to submit your Freedom of Information request? Are you sure it’s not already in the public domain? Confident that the terms of your request are accurate? By doing some initial research, you can save precious time.

In for the long haul:

Public authorities can (and almost always do) take 20 working days to respond to an information request, and the response can be delayed for another 20 working days, and even longer if there are public interest considerations to take into account.

We’re not trying to put you off submitting a Freedom of Information request – quite the opposite. But there are certain steps to take which will speed up the process and improve your chances of disclosure.

Search and research:

You can check whether the information that you want is already available by simply running a quick Google search. Or if you think a specific website would contain the specific information you’re after, you can carry out an advanced search. To do the following, type in your search bar:

site:[website URL] [type in specific term]

e.g. site:http://www.islington.gov.uk school data

Public bodies use lots of jargon. Locating similar information created by an authority will help you to use the correct terminology in your request. The BBC’s FOIA specialist Martin Rosenbaum describes the importance of this by explaining the difference between a “backlog” and a “historic caseload”.

I just called to say…:

You can phone the Freedom of Information team at the public authority you want to send your request to. Section 16(1) of the Act states there is a “duty to offer advice and assistance”, and a Freedom of Information officer may be able to point you to a place where you could access the information without submitting a request. They may even email the information over to you.

If you do need to submit a request for the information, the officer could provide guidance in refining your request, thus minimising the risk of refusal and further delay. Don’t forget your pleases and thank-yous when you ring up the Freedom of Information team. They’re there to help.

Still haven’t found what I’m looking for:

If you’re after specific data from the government, you could have a browse on data.gov.uk, which publishes datasets from government departments and local authorities. Or you could have a look at Full Fact’s resource page where you can locate statistical information on health, immigration, education and the economy.

Has someone else already requested my information?

Responses to requests by government departments and agencies are now kept in one place. You can search these by keywords and there are filtering options too. However, it seems that not all responses make it on to the disclosure logs.

So another great resource is WhatDoTheyKnow, which allows you to search through a database of Freedom of Information requests. Through this, you can check if a public authority has already answered a similar request to yours.

Lessons learned:

- You shouldn’t be deterred from submitting a request, but public authorities have 20 working days to respond to one

- Doing some preliminary research means your requests will be more targeted and informed, and raises the chances of success

- Simply calling a Freedom of Information team or running a quick internet search might reveal that the information that you seek is already available, and this can be a great timesaver

Do you have any research tips when it comes to Freedom of Information requests? Leave your comments below or tweet us @request_FOI.

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