A FOI guide (by people who file FOI requests)
Top tips on how to Freedom of Information requests from people who actually file FOI requests!
- Check what you’re looking for is not already out there
- Know who you are sending to
- Keep it focused!
- Speak their language
- Be prepared to be patient!
The internet is filled with guides on how to file a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Depending on the country you are in, it is likely that a local NGO – or your national freedom of information authority. – will have come up with one. The Global Investigative Journalism Network has an excellent list of FOI resources available in many countries across every continent. We really recommend you take a look at it; many of the FOI guides we love are in that repository.
At PI we equally spend much of our time filing FOI requests and, as the video below will assure you, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. We thought we could share some of our challenges and lessons.
Disclaimer: Please note that PI is not in a position to advise you individually on your request. However, we hope you find these resources useful in your own quest to, for example, unmask Policing, Inc. in your area. PI has not been nor will be legally representing you in connection with any request you make. You are responsible for providing any additional information or submissions to the bodies you contact or to any regulatory body with which you file any complaints.
So, first things first… What’s a FOI and why should you be filing one?
A Freedom of Information – aka FOI – request is a formal request you make to a public body (your local council, the police, a ministry…) in order to access information that should be accessible to the public. You may be trying to obtain a contract they have signed or simply obtain an answer to a question you have or even request other documents such as a presentation given by Amazon to police forces on how to obtain Ring footage, for instance. Turns out, not so simple.
A lot of our work focuses on partnerships struck between private companies and government bodies, or more broadly the practices of government and their use of technology. It is therefore no surprise that FOI requests have been an invaluable tool for us, enabling us to obtain information about the topics we are campaigning on. The more people file FOI requests and publish the information they get, the better informed we are as a society and the easier it is to demand changes. On that note, here are our lessons learned:
1) Check what you’re looking for is not already out there
Before you spend time writing a letter, spend time doing research to make sure what you are looking for is not already publicly available. Your government might have a website where they publish the contracts they sign with companies.
If you are in the UK, your first step could be checking websites like What Do They Know. A website that files FOI requests on your behalf and make the results you get available to the public. Other similar platforms exist in other jurisdictions This way you can check if what you are about to ask has been asked before.
2) Familiarise yourself with the FOI framework in your country
You do not need to be a lawyer to file a FOI request! In fact, Freedom of Information laws were passed with journalists and citizens in mind. However, it helps to know the basics about the freedom of information law in your country: how long can the government body take to answer your request, what information are they entitled to refuse and on what grounds etc. This is helpful because, if a public body is not giving you the information you have been asking for, you need to know if their refusal can be justified or not. If it’s not, you often have the right to ask them to re-consider and then appeal before the competent regulatory body or court and often at a low or no cost.
3) Format matters
There are not necessarily clear rules on formatting or what your letter should look like, and if you rely on a platform like What Do They Know the formatting will be done for you. However, we have found that formatting can help, especially if you are going to file a complaint eventually. Clearly flag the case number if you are replying following an initial response they gave you and keep a record of the letters you sent. Write down your contact details, including your address, so they know how to respond.
4) Know who you are sending to
When you are asking for information make sure the government body you are writing to is the one that has the information you are after. Do not mix up, for example, your local government and your local police forces, although, they should be able to point you in the direction of who might have it. Depending on the country you are in, the information you are after may be the realm of your local, regional or national government. Once you are sure what the body you need the information from is, check their website to see if they have a specific email address for FOI requests. If they do not, give them a ring or email their general email address to find out who you should be sending the FOI request to.
5) Keep it focused!
This is the most important advice we would like to give, do not ask for too many things at the same time! Here is what may happen if you do. Let’s say you ask your local council for A, B, C, and D and that they have 60 days to respond. They might wait 60 days to simply reply with a letter saying “sorry we cannot reply to D” because request was too long and would require the authority to exceed the designated by law time to respond. They can reply to A, B, C but you now have to reply to their letter to say “please send me your response to A, B and C” and potentially wait another 60 days before you get the answer you were after. By then you would have wasted a few months to get what you were after. We have been there, and it sucks. So, while you can (and should!) ask for more than one question at a time, think carefully about what the information you really want is and consider keeping the rest for a separate FOI request or a cheeky follow-up question after.
6) There is more than just answers to your questions!
Remember you can ask questions (e.g. “How does the Department of Workers and Pensions identify the cases that should be investigated for fraud?”) but you can also ask for documents (e.g “Please provide a copy of any data sharing agreements or similar such agreements with Padron”).
While answers to questions will usually be succinct, documents will often give you more to reflect on and potentially give you new and unexpected lead for your investigation…
7) Speak their language
A very common way for your request to be rejected is if the government body does not understand what you are asking for. It is not necessarily unwillingness from their part, it may simply be that they are using different terms internally than the ones you are using. This is particularly true when it comes to requests related to technology. You may be using terms like facial recognition, IMSI catchers, OSINT, SOCMINT, artificial intelligence, automated-decision-making… They may be using all those things but just using different terms for it. The first thing you should do is to provide a definition of what you are asking for (e.g. instead of using the term “IMSI catchers” use: “devices that fake mobile towers to collect mobile phone information in their vicinity, often referred to as IMSI catchers”). Another way to address this is to spend time reading the documents they have previously released, so you can identify the terms they use and even point to them in your request (e.g. “as mentioned in your annual report”). You can also consider making an initial FOI request asking for documents like minutes of meetings to find out how they may be referring to what you are investigating. Once you have obtained those documents, they are considered public and you can refer to them in your future communications (e.g “as per the minutes of the meeting you held on May 23rd 2020, please give me a copy of the contract referred to by person X”).
One last thing on language: keep it simple. Separate each question clearly, use very simple and explicit language.
8) If at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again… But don’t become vexatious.
If you get the answer to your question following your initial letter, congratulations and consider yourself very lucky! Often though, you might get a response asking you to further clarify your questions or to limit your request (more on that below). Don’t give up! Follow up by replying and remember you can file more than one letter, although if you ask the same government body for the same thing over and over again, depending on where you are, they might consider your request “vexatious” and not reply.
9) They may have a duty to tell you how to refine your request, take advantage of it.
Depending on the jurisdiction you are in, governments may have an obligation to tell you how to refine the letters. So if you ask for example for “all emails between Amazon and the Department of Health” and they tell you they cannot give that to you because it would take them too much time (fair enough), then you can request from them that they make suggestions as to how you could limit your request to make it manageable for them while still allowing you to get at least part of what you want. They may then say: “We could answer if you asked us for all emails between Amazon and the Department of Health over a one-month period.” Remember, they will not necessarily “volunteer” that information and tell you immediately how you should refine your request but it is worth asking and if they have the legal obligation to tell you and they refuse to do it, you have the right to file a complaint to the relevant regulator.
10) Be prepared to wait!
Filing a FOI request is not difficult, nor in and of itself particularly time consuming, but it does take a long time before you get what you are after. Investigations based on FOI requests sometimes take years of waiting. Governments may usually extend the time they have to respond for various reasons, and they will often use that time. Sometimes you will need to start from scratch with a new FOI request.
But having said all of this, take note of the exact day you filed the request and do not hesitate to complain if they do not reply in the timeframe allocated to them.
If you got inspired, watch the video presentation below before setting off on your own FOI journey. We wish you good luck and we hope to hear about your discoveries; feel free to share your experiences and lessons learned on our social media.