How to write a successful FOI Request

FOI requests are one of the most amazing tools to get data that I have ever discovered. I came across with them for the first time earlier this year, as part of my MA course in Science Journalism, since there is not anything remotely similar in my country, Spain. I have become very enthusiastic about them and the opportunities they offer for finding new stories, in many cases with an important impact on the public. Below you can find some recommendations to write a successful FOI request and send it to a public body in England.

What can you get with a FOI request? Not only datasets! In fact, you can receive the following type of information from any time period:

  • Recorded information (written material, photographs, plans, video and sound recordings, data on computer);
  • Any info held by or on behalf of authority. It doesn’t matter who created it;
  • Records systems or databases to be analysed.

Before starting sending FOI requests, allocate some time to check if the research you are planning to carry out have already been done. Some websites like What Do They Know? might be useful for that.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, public bodies are obliged to answer any FOI request -that falls within some limits- in 20 working days. You can send this request either by post or email, but the latter is the most common way nowadays. If you are planning to start an investigation that will involve a FOI request, my first piece of advice would be to start early, since it might take you much more time to have access to the information you are requested. The clock stops if the public body asks you for any clarification, and it starts again once you have replied to them. In some exceptional circumstances, this 20-day period must be extended. Besides, in some cases, the public body you are referring to will not answer within that period and you will have to send a complaint and wait for longer than expected.

Most of the public bodies have a FOI officer that would deal with these requests. You can usually find his/her contact details in a special section of their websites, dedicated to this. If your investigation involves many public bodies, it might be useful for you to build a spreadsheet with the contact details of all the FOI officers that you have contacted, and the dates of your communications and the nature of their responses. It will help you to keep track of what you are doing, specially if the investigation lasts many months and you start piling data.

When your request is very broad according to the FOI officer, the public body may ask you for money, so it is very useful to know these fees in advance. Fees also apply in respect of the time spent searching and retrieving records that are released to you on foot of you request and in respect of the copying of any records released.  Such fees are unlikely to arise if your request is for personal information. Requests are free if they do not cost more than 600 pounds, that equals three and a half days searching 25 pounds per hour, plus posting and copying. If your request exceeds those limits the following fees may apply:

  • €20.95 per hour of search and retrieval;
  • €0.04 per sheet for a photocopy;
  • €0.51 for a three and a half inch computer diskette containing copy documents;
  • €10.16 for a CD-ROM containing copy documents;
  • €6.35 for a radiograph (X-ray) containing copy documents;

Government bodies are not obliged to process data for you, but you can try to suggest in your letter the format that you would like to have those data on. In some cases they will send you the information according to your preferences. In order to ease your life later on, you should ask for raw data, in an electronic format, better if it is suitable for Access or Excel, so you can manipulate the dataset in your computer.

Another recommendation would be to be specific. State clearly in your letter the time period, or other variables that want your data to be constraint in. For example, do not just say “I want the information ordered by years”, because a FOI officer may provide the information by calendar years whereas another might divide it into fiscal years.

Be aware of exemptions. If your request falls under an exemption, the FOI officer will probably reject it. For example, you should ask for statistics rather than names of the people involved. This website can help you to understand those exemptions.

You can write your own FOI request from scratch or start by using a template, like this one:

Agency Head [or Freedom of Information Act Officer]
Name of Agency
Address of Agency
City, State, Zip Code

Re: Freedom of Information Act Request

Dear ______________:

This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

I request that a copy of the following documents [or documents containing the following information] be provided to me: [identify the documents or information as specifically as possible].

[Optional] I am willing to pay fees for this request up to a maximum of $_____. If you estimate that the fees will exceed this limit, please inform me first.

[Optional] I request a waiver of all fees for this request. Disclosure of the requested information to me is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in my commercial interest. [Include a specific explanation.]

Thank you for your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

Name
Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone number [Optional]

Finally, when you start receiving replies, it is very handy to build a spreadsheet with the results. In some cases you might receive weird rejections letters saying things like the following, which I recently received from a public body related to the NHS:

A copy of the information is enclosed.

I trust this provides the information required however please contact me directly if there are any issues you have with the information and I will attempt to resolve them.

Please be aware of that any information we provided following your request under the Freedom of Information Act does not confer an automatic right for you to re-use that information, for example to publish it.  If you wish to re-use the information that we provide and you do not specify this in your initial application for information then you must make a further request for its re-use as per the Re-Use of Public sector Information Regulations 2005 www.opsi.gov.uk

If this is your case, or if you receive any other strange reply, ask for help to FOI experts! That is what I did and found out that the email above was just bureaucratic bullshit to prevent me from publishing the story.

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