Submitting FOI requests – learning from my mistakes

In the last few days I have put together three FOI requests and I have already learnt quite a lot so thought I would share.

The first FOI request was definitely the worst and, luckily for the purposes of demonstration, the only one that I made public through the  WhatDoTheyKnow.com. For those unaware of this platform, it is part of the excellent MySociety brand.

The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow are pretty obvious. They put your request in the public domain, which allows peer scrutiny of the institution’s response to your request. Indeed, you often see other users of the site annotating requests to make sure that they are done correctly.

I titled my public request Street trees removed in Islington. It asks for the following from Islington Borough Council:

1. The number of trees removed and the number of trees planted at roadside locations in Islington in the following years 2008, 2009,
2010, 2011 and 2012 (so far).
2. The amount spent on tree removal for the entire council in the following years 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (so far). If possible, could you break down how much was spent in each council ward?
3. The sites in Islington where trees were removed but nothing planted in their place.
4. The number of trees planted in parks and other green spaces in Islington each year, including 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (so
far).

Now I have made the request I can already spot a couple of mistakes that bureaucrats may pick me up on. Especially in question 1 where I should have requested the number of trees removed from roadside locations separately. Careful careful wording is essential and I messed up there.

FOI requests also cannot cost the authority any more than £250, so I asked them to include any data they could afford so I could get the information more quickly – authorities get 20 days to respond and if they make a query about the request it gives them another 20 days.

I should have asked for them to contact me by telephone under section 16(1) of the Freedom of Information Act – the duty to assist – if they had any issues with my request.  I would have then had more control over the information I eventually got back. If you’re not sure on how to word your request then call the authority up beforehand using section 16(1) to get them to help you out.

One last thing, make sure that the authority has a history of responding to FOI requests of that nature (especially defence and health bodies) and that nobody has made the same request before. You do not want to wait twenty days simply for the information you get back to be pointless.

The two further requests I have made are extremely carefully worded and I have contacted the authorities ahead of time to find out exactly what I can ask for. Those two are private, but I’ll make sure to blog about them when I get the results back.