We’ve covered how to ask a Freedom of Information Act question to a public authority, but how should you expect your public authority to reply? Or, for those who are receiving a request, how do you best go about answering it? Openness, transparency and a willingness to be accountable for actions are the bottom line, but let’s go over the specifics.
The first thing that should happen when a request is received is for it to be logged into some monitoring software. This can be anything from an Excel spreadsheet to tailor-made FOI software, to a work-flow solution built into an electronic document and records management system. The free ‘FOI Monitor’ software will cover most of your needs and produces extensive statistical reports as required by the Department of Constitutional Affairs as well as documenting public interest test decisions. FOI statistics ought to be available from the authority’s website.
Next should be the initial response letter. Points that ought to be included include the date the request was received and when it is expected to be answered by, a succinct information policy, and contact details for the staff member who is managing the request. I’ve often used this initial FOI request response letter, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information uses it as a ‘best practice’ sample, though changing the dates, addresses and logos to suit the needs of your authority will be necessary. The Department of Constitutional Affairs offers a number of other standard responses.
Phoning up to clarify any points can really open up the dialogue and save a great deal of time. Though the public authority cannot ask what the requestor wants the information for, it can be pertinent, if
requestors have asked for more about X than they or you can handle, to use the skills of good reference librarians by asking non-leading questions such as ‘what it is about X that you want to know about’
This can whittle the answer down considerably.
Keep a log of all your correspondence and the progress of each request. This is really important since if a review is required at any stage you’ll be expected to prove or justify your actions, particularly in the case of a public interest test having been conducted.
Being well informed of changes to do with the Act is important for the integrity of the authority. This will ensure not too much or too little information is revealed and can prevent requestors coming back for a
review. Updates can be found by subscribing to the Freedom of Information JISCmail Discussion List at www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/freedom-of-information.html or checking the Information Commissioner’s website at www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk, particularly the decision notices.
In order to be as fair as possible in providing access to information, particularly businesses, authorities ought to publish released documents on their website so all contenders for the information have equal access and any commercial advantage is undermined to a certain degree.
Finally, the response must outline the steps for a review to be made of any decision. These ought to be independent from the people involved in the first response, and all factors of the case need to be reviewed before it can proceed to a further review with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Good luck with your request, whether you’re answering it or asking it, and don’t hesitate to post a comment if you’re having any difficulties.