Can your campaign afford to ignore the Freedom of Information Act?

Lucus Amin is co-founder of Request Initiative. He has used the Freedom of Information Act to get disclosures that were reported in the Observer, Guardian, Independent, Times and Telegraph. You can find out more about the freedom of information act, and how you can use it to strengthen your campaign, at our breakfast seminar on 15 January 2014.

In 2013 activists from Greenpeace grabbed headlines by scaling the shard and risking their freedom to protect the Arctic. The charity’s reputation as a daring innovator was reaffirmed. Back in the office, Greenpeace was also campaigning for a clean energy future to help avoid dangerous climate change. But they faced a problem: government secrecy. The charity suspected that the oil and gas industry was having an undue influence on government and that policy wasn’t being made in the national interest. They wanted evidence to test their hypothesis but the government was not forthcoming.

Then in November Greenpeace revealed that a gas industry employee was working inside government and helping to design a policy that his own company could profit from. The revelation was printed on the front page of The Guardian and George Monbiot then used the story as an example of how “corporate interests have captured the entire democratic process”.

So, how did Greenpeace get the story? With a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It was a relatively simple request, which took only a few hours to write yet the disclosure, and Greenpeace’s message, reached hundreds of thousands of people.

The request was written for Greenpeace by FOIA specialists Request Initiative and on 15 January NCVO will host the company’s directors as they explain how to use the law to obtain secret government data and how to get maximum publicity for disclosures. The breakfast seminar will explain the Greenpeace story and several others, provide an overview of how the system works and provide hands-on training.

If you haven’t used the FOIA, or want to improve your knowledge of information law this session is a must. Before the session we thought we’d give you a run-down of the very basics of the Freedom of Information Act 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 Whitehall 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, the 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 often generate media coverage for campaigns and raise awareness of important issues in the public interest.

The Freedom of Information Act

How does it actually work?

The act is user friendly and all you really need to get started is a good idea and some common sense. A public authority has 20 working days to provide you with a response.

Is that all there is to it?

Unfortunately not. Obtaining sensitive information isn’t straightforward. There are exemptions to the rule of disclosure and you’ll need to enter an appeals process, armed with knowledge of the law and an explanation of why disclosure serves the public interest.

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