Everything you need to know about FOI requests

Mara Antoce

Senior Account Executive

In the world of public relations and public affairs, being able to leverage new data can make all the difference when trying to cut through a crowded media agenda or secure a meeting with an important stakeholder.

There are many ways for an organisation to gather data, one of them being submitting a Freedom of Information (FOI) request – but what exactly are FOI requests and how can you get them right?

PLMR has supported many clients with undertaking FOI-based projects to help them launch successful campaigns and get in front of policy makers, and here is everything you should know.

 

What is an FOI request?

The Freedom of Information 2000 Act gives members of the public the right to request information which is recorded by public authorities, such as Local Authorities, NHS Trusts, Police Forces or Government Departments. The information you are entitled to request can vary greatly, from simple requests such as the number of employees, to more complex information, such as money invested for a certain policy area.

FOI requests are free to make, and it can take up to 20 working days to receive a response. However, there are also some caveats, so here are 5 top tips to ensure that your FOI requests are successful.

 

Ensure that you are submitting it to the right authority

Think about what data you want to uncover, and then do your research to find out which public authority has responsibility over what you are interested in learning. While conducting this research, you might even be pleasantly surprised to discover that the information you are after is already publicly available, in which case your job is done.

If not, once you know which organisation holds your desired information, it should be easy to find the contact details for their FOI team online. This will either be an email address to send your request to, or an online form which you can fill in and submit directly on their website.

 

Be specific and offer a timeframe

Now it’s time to think about your questions and how to phrase them to ensure you receive the right information. You should make sure these are as specific and precise as possible. This will allow the FOI teams who are reviewing the data to pull out exactly what you need. Avoid asking general questions as you can often already find the answers to these online.

It is also a good idea to offer a specific timeframe for the information you want. This will again help narrow down your request and will make it straightforward for FOI teams to search.

 

Don’t ask for too much information

While the Freedom of Information Act offers great insight into the work of public authorities and is a great democratic accountability tool, there are caveats to it, and there are a number of reasons why your request could be denied.

One of the most frequently encountered reasons for an FOI request to be denied is that the cost of dealing with the request would exceed the appropriate limit, which is usually set at 18 working hours of a person spending time locating, retrieving and extracting the information.

To avoid this, make sure that you are not asking for too much information. You can always split your questions into multiple separate requests, if necessary.

 

Make a spreadsheet

To make it as easy as possible for FOI teams to respond to you, it’s a good idea to include your questions in a spreadsheet, clearly signposting where the person responding to your request can fill in the necessary information. This will make the job of FOI teams easier, and it will also help you receive the information in a clear and uniform format.

 

Tell your story

By following these steps, you will have hopefully successfully submitted an FOI request and received the information you were after. Now it is time to analyse the data and see what story it tells. Inputting the results in a spreadsheet will again be useful and will allow you to spot any trends or patterns in the data if you have made multiple requests.

Think about how the data can help you convey your key messages and how you can leverage it to gain the attention of journalists, policymakers, or other relevant stakeholders.

 

FOI requests can seem confusing and overwhelming if you don’t have experience in doing them, but these top tips from PLMR should help you make successful requests that will support you when building an interesting and newsworthy communications campaign.

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