Carrying out research prior to making a request is one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects to making a Freedom of Information request, as it can directly impact whether the request successful or not.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information says that making a request should not be the first thing that a journalist does – it says it should be used "to penetrate the secrecy".
A poorly-researched request from a journalist for information that is accessible in the public domain will result in the authority applying Section 21. This allows them to direct you to where the information is, but not provide it directly. Journalists should not make requests until they know that the information is not already in the public domain.
If a request takes the full 20 working days that the authority is allowed, or if it takes longer and the response is that the information could have been found elsewhere, not carrying out sufficient research has lost the requester a month. The issues the information relates to may also not be newsworthy anymore.
The Information Commissioner’s Office states that you should check to see if the information is already available before making your request, while the Scottish Information Commissioner’s Office advises it is possible to phone authorities to see if the information is already published.
Scottish journalist Rob Edwards says in his advice for making requests: “Use Google to check what’s online. Look at the information already released, and work out which public agencies might have the information you’re after.
"Talk to experts, insiders, academics, campaigners, politicians – anyone who might have insight into the issue you are researching.”
Paul Gibbons on his ‘FOIMan’ blog says that effective research before making a request could help to refine what is asked for. Also he says to check WhatDoTheyKnow.com, which allows requests to be made and answered publicly, for previous requests on the issue.
A crucial step in researching a request is working out which authority holds, or is likely to hold, the information that you are seeking. Correctly identifying the authority will mean your request does not go to the wrong one and wastes time.
Heather Brooke says: “You have got to be thinking about who precisely holds the information, and I don’t just mean the police, I mean exactly which police force and even which unit within each police force.
"Then you have got to figure out how do they record it because that’s really crucial as you’ve got to understand how they define and categorise different things.”
One example of a request that wastes time for an authority and journalist comes from Gibbons, who has previously worked at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London.
“I remember getting requests at SOAS, which is a humanities-based university, getting these round robin requests which were asking about how many animals did we use in research, funnily enough, none. We are a humanities based institution, if you’re going to send FOI requests around at least check which organisations you should send them to. I think a lot of journalists when they are doing it for the first time they don’t really do that, they just fire it off.”
This highlights the importance of researching who the request is being made to, as well as the content of what is being asked for. Mark Hanna, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Sheffield and co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, says he imparts the importance of the pre-request research to those he teaches.
“What I try and convey is that it is a whole process, it is not just thinking of a request and firing it off, it is doing some pre-research into the subject to know the landscape and what data is likely to be kept and by who, making contact with that organisation with a pre-request phone call ideally and seeing if you can get any feel as to whether that request is likely to be successful or your idea should be amended."
Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists by Matt Burgess is published by Routledge.