Ten top tips on the art of using the Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a powerful and versatile campaigning tool. And it doesn’t need to be confrontational.

It can be used to build a body of research, as well as a way to engage the media in your campaign. It is also an effective way to gain information about policy issues and how decisions are arrived at.

As campaigners, we cannot afford to ignore it.

That’s why we include this topic on the Certificate in Campaigning, and why we also ran a Breakfast Learning Session on it at NCVO.

My ten top tips from our workshop

The workshop was run by Lucas and Brendan at Request Initiative.

1. Making a Freedom of Information Act request can be as easy as sending an email.

But it is important to frame a request appropriately. This is where the art comes in.

2. Public authorities have FOIA teams

Start by giving them a call. They are required by law to provide you with reasonable advice and assistance. Remind them about this duty if you need to.

3.FOI requests don’t need to be confrontational

Understand the FOI team’s concerns and build a supportive rapport.

4. There should be no room for ‘interpretation’ of questions

Working with the FOI team can help shape the wording of your request.

5. Consider asking for original documents or data so that you can examine it yourself

Otherwise you may be relying on someone else’s analysis which may miss information you think is important.

6. Make your requests balanced

Find the appropriate balance between making requests that are too specific and those that ask for too much information that you won’t use.

7. FOIA is slow process.

Keep it moving by calling the authority if you haven’t received an acknowledgment within three days. Give them a call again on the day the response is due.

8. Make FOI part of your campaign plan

At your campaign planning stage, consider how and when you might need to use FOIA. For maximum impact it should be part of your campaign strategy, along the lines suggested in the Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing, by Brian Lamb.

9. Think ahead

Will the information you’re requesting still be useful or relevant by the time you receive your response? Instead, would your time be better spent requesting information you’ll actually use in a year’s time?

10. There are exceptions

There are some exemptions to the information public bodies have to provide. But don’t let this deter you from making requests. They need to prove that the exemption applies and in most cases that the public interest in withholding information, is greater than the public interest in disclosing it.

Find out more

There is no doubt that making FOIA requests can be a powerful campaigning tool. There are lots of examples of this in NCVO’s guide Your Right To Know.’ But making an effective request that elicits the information you want, can take time and Lucas and Brendan’s guide ‘FOIA Without A Lawyer’ is an essential read. So armed with knowing how it works and how to make a successful request, you’re ready to get the compelling information your campaign needs to make an impact.

Sarah also manages the Certificate in Campaigning, the original ground-breaking campaigning course which is recruiting now for March 2014.

Request Initiative delivers research that supports public interest campaigns and helps generate media coverage of charity, NGO and social enterprise initiatives.

 

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Sarah Gilbert Sarah Gilbert is an experienced campaigner. She is an independent consultant and runs projects for NCVO on campaigning and influencing, including the Certificate in Campaigning and Leadership in Campaigns. She also coaches campaigners, has guest lectured for Roehampton University, and is a member of the advisory board for the University of Westminster's MA in Campaigning, Communications and Media. Sarah sits on the Campaigning Effectiveness Advisory Board and writes blogs, articles and tweets about how to influence people and the sector’s role in campaigning.

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