These are my tips for submitting a Freedom of Information request to an authority. They have all come about from my personal use of the act as a requester and are all from my experience of using the act.
Ask for information
It might sound simple but make sure you ask for information. It’s all too easy to ask a generic question to an authority. The Act defines information as ‘information recorded in any form’. They Act does not require an authority to gather information it does not already hold.
Say you’re requesting under the Act
It takes one line in an email to say ‘I’m requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000′. With a lot of authorities, especially local councils, using generic contact email addresses it makes it easier for the person dealing with your request to send it to the correct person/realise it is an FOI request.
Research, research, research
Applying for something blindly will often not end well – for you or the person dealing with the request. If you’re applying for information relating to a certain law/act make sure you look at it beforehand.
Try to avoid slang or colloquial/common phrases for the information you are requesting as these will most likely not be held by the authority. Instead of asking for the number of convictions for ‘joy riding’ find out what the legal term for it is (‘Taking without owners consent’).
A crucial part of research before a request is to see if the request has been made before. All it will take is a simple Google search and you should be able to find out. The information could well be in the public domain all ready.
These steps all save time for you and the person dealing with the request – you won’t be asked for any clarifications and they’ll know you’re informed on the subject.
Don’t be vague
Linking nicely from the last point, the more specific you are when you ask for information the more likely you will be to get it. Asking for data on a broad topic is more likely to see the request rejected due to the cost limit exemption (unless this information is stored and easily searchable). The more specific a request is the easier it should be, in theory, for the official to find it.
Include a caveat
Under Section 16 of the act it is the duty of Freedom of Information officers to provide assistance and guidance to those making/or who have made requests. If unsure as to whether information being requested will exceed the cost limits of the act it is sensible to make a second tier of information asked for. For example, if requesting information from the years 2008, 2006, and 2004 I will often state that if the information is likely to exceed costs limits that I would be willing for it to be provided for one or two of the years.
More in this guide:
The following pages give more information about the FOI Act and the rights of a requester.