Request Initiative is launching a blog today that provides advice and guidance for NGOs, charities, civil society groups and individuals. We want to help these organisations use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). If you’re struggling with a request or if there’s something specific you want to know about, email our editor at email@example.com. Feedback is always appreciated.
In this post we explain what FOIA is, why it’s useful and how it works.
What is FOIA?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public a right to know. You can use this right to find out who was responsible for a controversial decision, why a regulator chose not to prosecute a dodgy company or whether a council consulted properly with stakeholders in the run up to a contentious policy. In short, you can hold the government accountable for its decisions.
Why would I use FOIA?
Campaigning organisations need to scrutinise the claims of government and FOIA is one of the best tools for the job. Instead of accepting press releases at face value or relying on off-the-record tip-offs and rumours, FOIA gives you the chance to ask for documents: correspondence, memos, risk assessments, internal reports, budgets and datasets. You can see how public authorities really think, feel and act.
Information disclosed under FOIA is usually entering the public domain for the first time. This exclusivity is likely to attract the attention of journalists. FOIA disclosures can generate media coverage for campaigns and raise awareness of important issues in the public interest.
How does it work?
The act is user friendly and all you really need is a good idea and some common sense. Think of a question, write it down and email it to the relevant authority. FOIA is that simple, but there are lots of tips and tricks you can use to make your requests more effective. We’ll be sharing these on this blog on a weekly basis. If you have a specific question that you’d like answered, write to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if we can help.
Who can I ask?
You can send requests to almost every public authority in the UK (in Scotland your request will be treated under the very similar Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002). This includes central and local government, regulators, agencies, law enforcement bodies, quangos, non-departmental public bodies, publicly owned companies and many more. A list of the types of authorities that operate under FOIA is available online. The website WhatDoTheyKnow.com also provides a useful, but not exhaustive, list of more than 15,000 authorities that must provide environmental information. The FOI Directory is also a useful source.
When can I expect a response?
A public authority will normally give a response within 20 working days but this may be extended to 40 when there is a public interest to consider. Disclosure is not guaranteed because FOIA contains 24 exemptions which allow the authority to withhold information. You have the right to appeal but this process is a bit more complex than sending a request (and something this blog will explain over the coming months).
Can you show me what a good request looks like?
Yes. This blog will host model requests and successful case studies. We are inviting readers to submit the refusals they receive from public bodies. We will publish these and show you how to write a persuasive appeal. If you’d like us to look at your refusal please send it to email@example.com with a short covering letter that explains the public interest in the request.
Will reading this blog make me a FOIA genius?
The best way to develop your FOIA skills is by making your own requests. The aim of this blog is to share our expertise with readers and to give guidance based on our experience. We are hoping to learn from our readers and together make the UK more accountable. We will publish new content every week so check back regularly or follow us on twitter!