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 looking for similar requests to yours.
- 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 what they do on their website.
- Contact the authority by phone or email to ask if they hold the kind of information you’re after.
- Don’t 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.
- 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 authority to the site, we’d love to hear from you too.
WhatDoTheyKnow lets you make requests for information to a range of organisations:
- Those formally subject to the FOI Act
- Those formally subject to the Environmental Regulations (a less well defined group)
- Those which voluntarily comply with the FOI Act
- Those which aren’t subject to the Act but we think should be, on grounds such as them having significant public responsibilities.
In the last case, we’re using the site to lobby for expansion of the scope of the FOI Act. Even if an organisation is not legally obliged to respond to an FOI request, they can still do so voluntarily.
- Why must I keep my request focused?#
Please put in your request only what is needed so that someone can easily identify what information you are asking for. Please do not include any of the following:
- arguments about your cause
- statements that could defame or insult others
- questions or requests for comment rather than for specific information
If you include extraneous material, we may have to remove your request to avoid problems with libel law, which is a pain for both you and us.
The site is only for hosting FOI requests, not for general correspondence with public authorities. Phrasing your request as a question or a request for comment (e.g. “why are you doing X?” or “please explain why you are doing X”) makes it more likely that your message will not be seen as a valid FOI request, both by us and by the public authority. Asking for “copies of all policies and procedures regarding X” would normally result in a valid FOI request.
Short, succinct messages make it easier for authorities to be clear what information you are requesting, which means you will get a reply more quickly.
- How can I make responsible and effective FOI requests?#
- We would encourage all our users to read FOI Man’s Ten Top Tips on making responsible and effective FOI requests and the Scottish Information Commissioner's Tips for requesting information.
- 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 you may not use this site to run your campaign, we encourage you to use it to get the information you need. We also encourage to run your campaign elsewhere – one effective and very easy way is to start your own blog. 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).
- Does it cost me anything to make a request?#
Making an FOI request is nearly always free.
Authorities often include unnecessary, scary, boilerplate in acknowledgement messages saying they “may” charge a fee. Ignore such notices. They hardly ever will actually charge a fee. If they do, they can only charge you if you have specifically agreed in advance to pay. More details from the Information Commissioner.
Sometimes an authority will refuse your request, saying that the cost of handling it exceeds £600 (for central government) or £450 (for all other public authorities). At this point you can refine your request, e.g. it would be much cheaper for an authority to tell you the amount spent on marshmallows 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 provide any information released in the requested format so long as it is as reasonably practicable to do so. Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner and Tribunal are currently interpreting this requirement to refer only to the choice between receiving documents in paper format or receiving them electronically and not to a choice of electronic file format.
We think the person making the request should be able to specify an electronic format and we note that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 uses the words ‘... or in another form acceptable to the applicant’.
- How quickly will I get a response? #
By law, public authorities must respond promptly to requests.
Even if they are not prompt, in nearly all cases they must respond within 20 working days. If you had to clarify your request, or they are a school, or one or two other cases, then they may have more time (full details).
WhatDoTheyKnow will email you if you don’t get a timely response. You can then send the public authority a message to remind them, and tell them if they are breaking the law.
- What if I never get a response?#
There are several things you can do if you never get a response.
- Sometimes there has been a genuine problem and the authority never received the request. It is worth telephoning the authority and politely checking that they received the request. It was sent to them by email.
- 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’re still having no luck, then you can ask for an internal review, and then complain to the Information Commissioner about the authority. 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 about the "Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005", which at first glance implies you may not be able do anything with the information.
You can, of course, write articles about the information or summarise it, or quote parts of it. We also think 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. See our policy on copyright.
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.
- 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. There are differences around time limits for compliance. See the Scottish Information Commissioner’s guidance for details.
- Can I request information about myself? #
No. Requests made using WhatDoTheyKnow are public, made under the Freedom of Information Act, and cannot help you find information about a private individual.
If you would like to know what information a public authority holds about yourself, you should make a “Subject Access Request” in private using Data Protection law. The Information Commissioner’s website provides advice on accessing your own personal information
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.
You should contact the public authority directly if you would like to make a request in private. If you’re interested in buying a system which helps you manage FOI requests in secret, then contact us.
- Why can I only request information about the environment from some authorities? #
Some public authorities, such as Milford Haven Port Authority, don’t come under the Freedom of Information Act, but do come under another law called the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
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? #
- We ask you to first send a test version of your request to a few authorities. Their responses will help you improve the wording of your request, so that you get the best information when you send the request to all of the authorities. There is currently no automated system for sending the request to the other authorities, you must copy and paste it by hand.
- 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 try to be an archive of all FOI requests. We’ll never support uploading other requests. For one thing, we wouldn’t be able to verify that other responses actually came from the authority. If this really matters to you, you can always make the same request again via WhatDoTheyKnow.
- How do you moderate request annotations? #
Annotations on WhatDoTheyKnow are to help people get the information they want, or to give them pointers to places they can go to help them act on it. We reserve the right to remove anything else.
Endless, political discussions are not allowed. Post a link to a suitable forum or campaign site elsewhere.
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