Maurice Frankel: How to make your FOI request really count

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The Independent Online

Make your FOI request specific. Government departments can refuse requests if finding the information would take more than three and a half days. For other public authorities the limit is two and a half days. Resist the temptation to ask for "everything you hold" about a topic unless it's a very small one.

Read what the authority has already published. This may refer to other unpublished material and help you to get to the heart of the issue.

Don't overlook the obvious source of help, the authority. The FOI Act requires authorities to advise and assist requesters. Larger authorities have FOI officers. Some are positive about the Act - and also appreciate that a well-targeted request means less work for them.

Factual information will usually be easier to get hold of than analysis, opinions and advice, particularly on controversial matters. Highlight factual elements in your request even if you're asking for other material too.

Information about the value of a contract will almost certainly have to be disclosed after the contract is signed. Don't accept "commercial confidentiality" as an excuse.

Personal information about other members of the public will normally be exempt. But information about officials acting in an official capacity should be disclosed.

If your request involves environmental information, point this out. New environmental information regulations, implementing an EU directive, provide a more demanding right of access than the FOI Act. These cover pollution and measures affecting the natural environment, including planning and road building.

Authorities have 20 working days to reply, but breaking old secrecy habits may taker longer. Challenge unjustified refusals by asking the authority itself to reconsider, then by complaining to the Information Commissioner.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.