Making requests #Never made a request before? Follow our beginners’ guide.
It can be hard to untangle the complicated structure of government, and work out who has the information you want. Here are a few tips:
- Browse or search WhatDoTheyKnow and look for similar requests to the one you plan to make: which authority were they sent to, and were they successful? If so, it’s probably the one you want.
- It’s always worth double-checking though, so when you’ve found an authority you think might have the information, use the “home page” link on the right hand side of their page to check their website and see exactly what their responsibilities are.
- You might even contact the authority by phone or email to ask if they hold the kind of information you’re after.
- But at the end of the day, there’s no need to worry too much about getting the right authority. If you get it wrong, they ought to advise you who to make the request to instead.
- If you’ve got a tricky case, please contact us for help. We have a great team of volunteer administrators who are willing to help.
- You’re missing the public authority that I want to request from! #
Please contact us with the name of the public authority and, if you can find it, their contact email address for Freedom of Information requests.
If you’d like to help add a whole category of public authorities to the site, we’d love to hear from you too.
As well as providing a simple way to make Freedom of Information requests, WhatDoTheyKnow actively campaigns for the expansion of the scope of Freedom of Information law to cover a wider number of public bodies.
Via the site, you can make requests for information to a range of organisations:
- Those formally subject to the FOI Act (as set out in Schedule One of the Act, as amended).
- Those formally subject to the Environmental Information Regulations or EIR (a more ambiguous group which includes bodies subject to FOI, and in addition a wider group of bodies with some public role such as utility companies. Currently the legal precedent for setting out which bodies are subject to EIR is the judgement in the Fish Legal case).
- Public bodies which voluntarily comply with the FOI Act even though they are not legally obliged to.
- Those which aren’t subject to the Act but which we think should be, for example because they have significant public responsibilities. These include bodies which operate as a regulator, make public appointments, or distribute significant amounts of public funds.
- Why must I keep my request focused? #
A Freedom of Information request is just what the name implies: a request for information, or data. If the authority holds the data, in most cases, the law obliges them to release it.
You can speed up the process by making your request concise, clear and focused. Include nothing more than what is needed for the Information Officer to understand what information you are asking for.
You should not include:
- arguments about your cause
- statements that could defame or insult others
- questions or requests for comment rather than for specific information
The Freedom of Information process does not allow for general correspondence, background details or the rights and wrongs of a situation. It simply gives you the right to ask for documents or data that the authority holds.
Framing your request accordingly will get better results, so for example, instead of asking “why are you doing X?” or “how do you feel about the results of doing X” (which makes it more likely that your message will not be seen as a valid FOI request, both by us and by the public authority) you should ask for “copies of all policies and procedures regarding X”. If you include extraneous material, we may have to remove your request to avoid problems with libel law, which is inconvenient for both you and us.
- How can I make responsible and effective FOI requests? #
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we have an interest in making sure that our users’ FOI requests are as effective as possible, because that’s better for everyone.
- It’s better for you, because you get faster, higher quality results.
- It’s better for the often overloaded staff who receive your requests, because it makes their jobs easier.
- It’s better for us, because we rely on the goodwill both of our users and of authorities to continue operation.
- It’s better for our rights to information as a whole, because if requests become too much of a burden, there’s a greater chance of laws being passed that restrict our access to information in the future.
Here are the ways you can optimise your request:
- Send it to the right place: Make an effort to ensure that your request is directed to the appropriate body. We appreciate that’s not always easy, and if you’re not sure after doing some research, by all means make your request to the body you think is most likely to hold the information are seeking. You can expect them to provide advice and assistance to point you to the right place if you get it wrong; or if you get stuck you’re welcome to seek help from the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team.
Don’t carpet-bomb: You might be planning to make a request to, for example, all local councils, or even all public bodies in the country, but it’s worth stopping to reflect. Such bulk requests result in a lot of data, and cost a lot in staff time for the authorities.
Will you actually be able to handle that quantity of data? Consider if your needs could be met by requesting information from a representative sample of bodies, or by requesting information from your local council and a set of councils covering areas with similar characteristics.
Also consider if the information may be held centrally, for example by a Government department, and so obtained via a single request rather than many.
- Word your question carefully: It can be worth specifying the format you’d like your response in, and making sure that you ask for exactly the data you need, or you may find that, when making requests to a range of bodies, they answer in so many different formats that you can’t compare like with like.
- Avoid acronyms and ambiguous terms: Acronyms and jargon whose meaning might appear obvious to you may not be understood by officers receiving your request. Consider expanding acronyms, explaining highly technical terms, and pre-empting potential requests for clarification.
- Fine-tune your request: Make the right request the first time, and you won’t have to return for further information later. So, consider what you want to do with the information when you receive it and whether you will need additional information to put the material in context. For example, statistics on the numbers of potholes fixed by a council this year might be more useful if obtained with context such as the figures for previous years.
- But don’t ask for too much: On the flip side, one of the reasons that authorities can turn down a request is that it would take too many resources (ie staff time and financial cost) to answer fully — so only ask for what you need. Restricting your request to material from a specific time period is a responsible approach and it can prevent your request being rejected on the grounds of being too broad to deal with.
- Stay courteous: The FOI officer is often the defender of the public’s right to information within an authority. They may well be acting as your advocate within the public body, and you’ll find that they’re often keen to help you. They’ll remain all the more so if you treat them politely.
- Remember it’s all going online: So take care not to include any defamatory material in your request, such as allegations of illegal or abusive behaviour. Not only can such material cause serious problems for us, it can put you at risk of committing libel, and your request being deemed vexatious — in which case you won’t receive a response.
- Consider asking for proactive publication: To save you from having to make a similar request again in the future you might want to ask the public body to consider starting to proactively publish the information on their website. In some cases, where the “datasets” provisions of Freedom of Information law apply, public bodies are required to publish up-to-date versions of requested material.
Here’s some further reading with more detail on how to make effective FOI requests:
- Can I use your site for campaigning? #
If you want information to support an argument or campaign, Freedom of Information is a powerful tool.
- Although we can’t help you run your campaign, we encourage you to use WhatDoTheyKnow to get the information you need. You are welcome to link to your campaign from this site in an annotation to your request (you can make annotations after submitting the request).
- Some campaigners have guided their supporters in making requests for information via WhatDoTheyKnow for their cause, using the pre-written request tool. There is guidance on how to create pre-written requests here. You can use annotations to link between requests; this is useful if your request builds on a response that someone else receives, or is for more a more up to date version of information which has been released previously.
- You may find it useful to get in touch with others who are campaigning on the same issue as you are. Site users can send messages to one another: click on any user’s name to see their profile and a link via which you may contact them.
- Does it cost me anything to make a request? #
Making an FOI request is nearly always free.
Authorities often include standardised text in their acknowledgement messages saying they “may” charge a fee, which, understandably, can be a little frightening. Ignore such notices. They hardly ever will actually charge a fee.
Most of the activities that authorities can charge for, such as photocopying, and postage, don’t usually apply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow, which are all conducted via email. Additionally, a public body can only charge you if you have specifically agreed in advance to pay. See more details from the Information Commissioner.
Sometimes an authority will refuse your request, saying that the cost to them of handling it exceeds the limits of £600 (for central government) or £450 (for all other public authorities). At this point you could choose to refine your request: for example, it would be much cheaper for an authority to tell you the amount spent on advertising in the past year than in the past ten years.
- Will I get the information in the format I want? #
The law requires that if you ask for the information to be provided in a particular format the public authority is required to do so, so long as it is as reasonably practicable.
You might want to explicitly request data in a reusable format such as a .csv file (which you can import into spreadsheet software); this helps prevent the response being provided as images, or screenshots of spreadsheets which are much harder to extract data from.
There’s no need to explicitly request a response ‘via email’, though: we consider that by making your request via WhatDoTheyKnow, you are already making this clear.
- How quickly will I get a response? #
By law, public authorities must respond “promptly” to requests. We interpret this to mean that you should expect a response as soon as is practical for the authority in question, taking into consideration factors such as the quantity of information you have requested, the authority’s workload from other requests, and the staff available to deal with them.
In any case, the law states that they must respond within 20 working days, with a couple of exceptions: if you had to clarify your request, or your request is to a school, or in one or two other scenarios, then they may have more time — you can read more about timescales here.
WhatDoTheyKnow will automatically send you an email reminder if you don’t get a response within the time limit. You can then send the public authority a message to chase your request, and tell them if they are breaking the law.
- What if I don’t get a response? #
There are several things you can do if your request goes unanswered.
- First, check it went through. If you see a little green tick on your request page, you can be sure that your request went through smoothly from our end and has been received by the authority’s mail server. Nonetheless, there can sometimes be a hitch at the other end, so it is worth telephoning the authority and politely checking that they received your request. Quote any reference number that may have been included in an auto-response. They may also ask what format your request was sent in: all WhatDoTheyKnow requests are sent by email.
- If it went through, follow up. Use the “Write a reply” option under “Actions” on your request, to request an acknowledgement of your request if one isn’t forthcoming.
- If they have not received it, the problem is most likely due to “spam filters”. Refer the authority to the measures in the answer ‘I can see a request on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we never got it by email!’ in the FOI officers’ section of this help. If you don’t see the little green tick on your request page, you should use the “Report this request” option under “Actions” to alert the volunteer support team to the problem.
- If you’re still having no luck,then you can first ask for an internal review, and then complain to the Information Commissioner about the authority. If you get no response at all then you can ask the ICO for help without waiting for an internal review. Read our page ‘Unhappy about the response you got?’.
- What if I’m not satisfied with the response? #
- If you didn’t get the information you asked for, or you didn’t get it in time, then read our page ‘Unhappy about the response you got?’.
- It says I can’t re-use the information I got! #
Authorities often add legal boilerplate citing the “Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005”, which at first glance implies you may not be able do anything with the information. They also sometimes put copyright notices on material.
Careful scrutiny of the legislation, however, shows that you are at liberty to write articles about the information, summarise it, or quote parts of it. It’s WhatDoTheyKnow’s belief that you should feel free to republish the information in full, just as we do, even though in theory you might not be allowed to do so: our policy on copyright explains why.
If the information you have received is Crown Copyright then you are able to reproduce it under the Open Government Licence but there are some conditions — check that link for more details.
- Can you tell me more of the nitty gritty about the process of making requests? #
Have a look at the access to official information pages on the Information Commissioner’s website.
If you’re requesting information from a Scottish public authority, the process is very similar, although are differences around time limits for compliance. See the Scottish Information Commissioner’s guidance for details.
- Can I request information about myself? #
No. The correct channel for requesting any information that a public authority holds about you is via a Subject Access request using the Data Protection law.
This website does not allow for such requests, not least because we publish correspondence online, where anyone would be able to see the potentially sensitive information that can result from such requests. The Information Commissioner’s website provides advice on how to make a Subject Access request.
If you see that somebody has included personal information, perhaps unwittingly, in a request, please contact us immediately so we can remove it.
- I’d like to keep my request secret! (At least until I publish my story) #
WhatDoTheyKnow is currently only designed for public requests. All responses that we receive are automatically published on the website for anyone to read.
However, WhatDoTheyKnowPro is a service for journalists and campaigners which includes the ability to delay publication of your requests and responses. If you are a journalist, campaigner, activist, or someone else with a need to make requests for information which are, at least initially, private then find out more and get in touch.
- Why can I only request information about the environment from some authorities? #
It’s a very similar law, so you make a request to them using WhatDoTheyKnow in just the same way as an FOI request. The only difference is that on the page where your write you request, it reminds you that you can only request “environmental information” and tells you what that means. It is quite broad.
You can, of course, request environmental information from other authorities. Just make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request as normal. The authority has a duty to work out if the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) is the more appropriate legislation to reply under.
- Can I make the same to request to lots of authorities, e.g. all councils? #
This is possible, under certain circumstances. We urge those considering making requests to large numbers of bodies to carefully consider if doing so is justified. Thought should be given to the potential cost to the public sector, the reputation of Freedom of Information and WhatDoTheyKnow.com as well as the potential benefits of having the information released.
Once you are sure that your requests are valid and defensible, we ask you to first send a test version to a few authorities. Their responses will help you improve the wording of your request, so that you get the best information when you go on to send it to the remaining authorities.
There is currently no automated system for sending the request to multiple authorities: you must copy and paste it by hand, although, see below for details of our forthcoming service WhatDoTheyKnow Professional.
There are some automated restrictions on the number of requests that can be sent through WhatDoTheyKnow at a time. These are for spam prevention and can be overridden on request. Before removing restrictions on accounts the team may make suggestions aimed at improving the requests, and checking information isn’t already published, or hasn’t already been collated centrally, and can’t be obtained by a request to just one body.
If you are a journalist, activist, campaigner or someone else who would find it useful to have a tool enabling you to make requests to multiple bodies at the same time please find out more and get in touch.
- I made a request off the site, how do I upload it to the archive? #
WhatDoTheyKnow is an archive of requests made through the site, and does not aspire to be an archive of all FOI requests.
For that reason, we don’t provide a means by which to upload requests that were made by other means, and we have no plans to do so in the future. The main reason for this is that we can’t verify that responses received from outside our system actually came from the authority they purport to — and we are keen to ensure that all content on WhatDoTheyKnow is 100% verifiable.
- How can I attach a document to my message? #
It is exceptionally rare that a Freedom of Information request requires an attached document, so we don’t offer this functionality. If necessary, you can upload material to other services such as flickr.com, Google Docs, or scribd.com and then provide a link in the body of your request. Where a location on map is required as part of a request, many online mapping services, such as Google Maps, allow you to share exact co-ordinates via a link.
- Do you have any advice for public sector whistleblowers? #
If you work for a public body and you know of information that the public should have access to, making a Freedom of Information request via WhatDoTheyKnow can be a good way to get it into the public domain. We’re happy for people to use our service under a pseudonym (although you should first read our advice on using pseudonyms).
Whistleblowers keen to keep their identity secret should take precautions such as not making their request from their workplace, and not using their work email address (it’s possible a court may order us to release user information we hold). Using a pre-paid mobile phone rather than an internet connection at home, or even drafting a request for someone else to send might be worth considering.
You may wish to consider setting up a new account for your whistleblowing request as your history of requests may help people identify you. See also: Hints and Tips for Whistleblowing from Spy Blog and The EU Human Rights Defenders Relocation Platform.
- How do you moderate request annotations? #
Annotations on WhatDoTheyKnow have a specific purpose: they are provided so that the site’s community of users can help people get the information they want, or, once they’ve received it, give them advice about the next steps they might take. We reserve the right to remove annotations that don’t fit into one of these categories. Please see our ‘How we run WhatDoTheyKnow’ section for more information.
Political discussions and personal opinions are not allowed in annotations: if you feel strongly that you need to provide background context, you may post a link to a suitable forum, blog post or campaign site elsewhere. Please see our House Rules section for more information about the standards we expect our users to adhere to.
We want to keep our service tightly focused on its purpose, and with limited administrative resources, we prioritise substantive FOI requests and responses. For that reason we spend less time on the moderation of annotations than of FOI correspondence, and the threshold for removal of annotations is relatively low.
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