I spent time on Friday sharing some of my experiences of using Freedom of Information with members of the Campaign Forum.
It’s a group of campaigners from across the sector that get together every quarter to share learning from their campaigns and hear from outside speakers.
I’ve always believed that it’s an under utilised tool for our campaigning, and if used well can help us to access invaluable information that allows our campaigns to be more effective.
It was encouraging to hear that many of the organisations present had made us of Freedom of Information in their campaigning work.
One good recent example of this approach was by Scope who worked with Demos to put together this interactive map of cuts to disability services across England and Wales.
As well as sharing a brief introduction to using Freedom of Information, drawing on the materials from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, I also shared a few top tips for making the most from it;
My tips were;
Be specific – That it’s very easy to have requests rejected because they’re asking for too much information, and as a result fall foul of the set limits that authorities have for ‘checking whether it holds the information, finding and extracting the information’. To avoid this, you need to be specific with what you’re requesting, and make use of time scales, titles of specific organisations/campaigns or locations to help to refine your asks.
I also shared the advice that Chris Coltrane had shared at the Netroots conference, that if you find that your request is rejected because they’ve calculated that it’ll cost too much to find, ask them how they’ve come to that calculation.
Be patient – Under law you’re meant to get a response within 20 working days, but it often seems that the deadline slips. Make sure you keep a good record of what you’ve requested and when, and follow-up once the 20 days have passed.
Ask for advice – That ‘ve found that Freedom of Information officers have often been very helpful it helping to access the information I’ve been looking for, and that you can make it easy for them to get in touch with you by providing a phone number with your request.
It takes time – If you’re an organisations planning to use the information in a media report or similar, don’t expect to have it all together in under a month. Plan well ahead and realise that the process of requesting the data itself is as time-consuming as processing the data afterwards! Campaigners present shared how they’d found it to be a really good project to involve interns in.
Request the data format – This is a lesson that I’m learning the hard way, from not doing so in my last round of request. I’ve got the information back in a whole range of formats, including pdfs which are incredibly hard to extract data from. You can specify the format that you want the information in, and the authority is required to comply with your preference so long as that is reasonably practicable.
You don’t have to justify why you want the information – But I suggested if you are worried about how requesting the information might impact a relationship with an official you can always do so in a personal capacity or work with a colleague to request it.
And the useful advice from the group;
Test out your request – A couple of campaigners spoke of how when they’ve been using Freedom of Information for large-scale requests they’ve tested out the request they’re making with a few friendly FoI Officers first to check that its understandable.
Get the Information Commissioner involved – One campaign spoke of how they’d still not heard back from some local authorities after a number of months and had as a result got the Information Commissioner involved. It’s a good reminder that there is recourse available if you’re not happy with the initial response.
I’ll keep an eye out for good uses of Freedom of Information by campaigns. What tips would you add, or what questions do you have?