Have you ever considered using the Freedom of Information Act?
Have you been interested in obtaining documents and information held by the government and its agencies, but you did not know where to start?
Have you already tried using the Freedom of Information Act but with little success? Have you discovered the way civil servants can delay and prevent disclosure using the many exemptions contained in the Freedom of Information Act?
In this series of posts we are going to be looking at the starting steps for making requests using the Freedom of Information Act. You may be a journalist looking for a story, or a concerned citizen trying to hold our government to account. You may be an opposition politician attempting to find out what the government is really doing.
Brendan Montague and Lucas Amin of Request Initiative have together written a guide for journalists, and the primary aim is to help people in using the Freedom of Information Act to get information that will make headline news.
However, the short booklets do contain lots of useful guidance anyone wanting to use the Freedom of Information Act. Here we propose two different ways of using the Freedom of Information Act to achieve disclosure: we call them grazing and mining.
Grazing means targeting information which does not fall within the scope of any of the exemptions that can be used by civil servants to prevent disclosure.
Interesting and Relevant Information
This can include large data sets that have been collected by public bodies. There has been great information found simply by asking for and analysing spreadsheets that have already been compiled by public authorities.
It can also include simply repeating requests that have been successful in the past using the Freedom of Information Act.
In this case requests can be made to gather and update interesting and relevant information that is already in the public domain. If the information is out there already, updating it should not fall foul of any exemptions.
The mining approach to using the Freedom of Information Act is the polar opposite of a grazing request.
Not Stopping Until You Get It
This involves identifying the information you want and then stopping at nothing until you get it. This information could include asking for police reports, government legal advice, memos from meetings.
Due to the nature of this information it will more than likely involve you running up against certain exemptions.
However, some exceptions under the Freedom of Information Act are ‘qualified’, meaning that information will be released when the public interest is served by disclosure.
Others are ‘prejudice based’, which means exemptions can only apply when the public body can show there would be harm or damage.
You Can Get What You Need
The definition of such crucial terms as ‘public interest’ and ‘would, or would likely to, prejudice’ are not defined by the the Freedom of Information Act. This meaning there is huge scope to challenge refusals and bring about disclosure.
Even when its an absolute exemption under the the Freedom of Information Act you may still have a chance of getting the information you want.
Devising a Freedom of Information request that sits just beyond the periphery of what is currently accepted to be information that should be disclosed can prove highly advantageous, for the journalist, for the citizen, but more importantly for society as a whole.
Strengths And Challenges
Done well, this can set a precedent under the the Freedom of Information Act with the potential to liberate an entire seam of new and important information of a particular quality that has never been disclosed.
The two approaches to the Freedom of Information Act – grazing and mining – both have strengths and challenges.
Both are effective and neither is inherently more valuable than the other. It depends upon the time limit that you have at your disposal, the complexity of the information you are seeking and the number of exemptions that you might face.
Next week we will explain further how our grazing technique can work for you. Then soon after we will provide our Top Ten Tips to help you use the Freedom of Information Act successfully.
This series of posts is based on Request Initiative’s handbook FOIA without the Lawyer: Freedom, Information and the Press which is available from the Centre for Investigative Journalism and from Amazon.co.uk.