Have you ever wondered how much money your council spent on that new building in town?
Or perhaps you’ve read a news story and wondered about the facts behind it: for example, just how many passport applications are made every month?
Maybe you have an interest in a piece of land near your house, or you’re trying to uncover facts about something that happened many years ago.
These are just a few examples of when the Freedom of Information Act could come in handy. Here in the UK, anyone has the right to ask for information from any public body.
You can ask central and local government departments, the NHS, the armed forces, state-funded schools and the regulators of bodies such as charities, businesses and other organisations for information – and if they hold it, in most cases, they must respond.
Not everyone is aware that they have this right, and if they do, they might not know where to begin. That’s why, back in 2008, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow, a site to promote the Freedom of Information process and make it as easy as possible to send requests.
Like many of our sites, it allows you to make contact with a public body, and also publishes your correspondence online so that others can benefit from your findings.
What can you ask?
Note the word ‘information’ in ‘Freedom of Information’ – this act strictly covers your right to request facts and figures, data and, well… recorded information.
It’s not for asking for data about yourself, and it’s not the place for woolly, indirect queries or requests for opinions. Plus, there’s no point in asking for stuff that the organisation doesn’t hold, or which is already publicly available on their website.
There are lots more details about this, and links to good sources of advice, on WhatDoTheyKnow’s Help pages.
How do you make a request?
We built WhatDoTheyKnow to make the Freedom of Information process really simple for everyone.
If you’d like to see exactly how to do it, we’ve put together a walk-through, below. Follow these steps, and you can make an FOI request too.
1. Go to WhatDoTheyKnow.com
WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information request website: you’ll find it here.
2. Make sure no-one has already requested the information you want.
Before you make your request, we advise you to search (via Google or on WhatDoTheyKnow) to ensure that the information hasn’t already been published. If you’ve already done that, go straight to step 3.
You can use the search box on the right of the WhatDoTheyKnow homepage to check whether the information is already on our website.
Search for the name of the authority you want to make your request to.
I’m searching for my hometown of Brighton’s council, because I want to ask a question about a new development. Clicking through to the council’s page, I can see that 3,448 requests have already been made to them through WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Do any of those requests cover the question I’m planning on asking? I can search them to make sure.
My request concerns Circus Street, so I search for that. It’s a fairly recent issue, so I’m going to restrict my results to the last couple of years – I’m not interested in queries about the same street from many years ago.
I can further refine my results so that I only see requests which have been successful – that is, where the council have provided the information asked for.
That narrows the results down quite nicely, and it’s easy for me to see that my question has not been answered before. It’s also worth clicking the ‘unresolved requests’ link to check that there isn’t a request awaiting a response.
3. Compose your request
Once you’re sure that no-one has made your request before, you can start your own. Click on the blue button at the top of the page:
Type in a one-line summary of your question as the title. As you do so, the site will suggest similar requests which have already been made – another means of ensuring that you are not making a duplicate request.
None of these are relevant, so I’m going to go ahead and compose my request.
There are some handy tips on the right: keeping your message succinct and focused will get the best results.
It’s not a good idea to include opinions or complaints: the authority is only obliged to respond to requests for information.
Be sure to include your name below the “Yours faithfully” sign-off.
Take a moment to read the note at the side of the page:
Requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow are published on the site, as well as sent to the public authority – it’s all about making information available to everyone.
Remember how we searched to see if anyone had already asked this question? If they had, it would have saved me, and the council, some time – that’s why the site does everything in public.
One result of this is that, if you use the site, your name will be published too (if you prefer for that not to happen, you could make your request using a pseudonym, but if you’re thinking of that do read our advice on the subject first).
4. Check your request
Click on ‘preview your public request’ to check it over before you send it.
If you spot a mistake, or remember something you wanted to add, you can click ‘edit this request’.
Otherwise, if you’re ready, click ‘send request’.
5. Register or log in
If it’s the first time you have used the site, you will need to register.
Input your email address, name and a password on the right hand side of the page. Then check your email for a confirmation link before you can proceed. If you can’t find your email confirmation, check your spam folder.
You’ll only have to go through this process once. If you have an account, and are logged in to the site, your request is sent as soon as you click the ‘send’ button.
6. Await your response
Your request has been sent.
When the authority replies, WhatDoTheyKnow will send you an automated email. The authority’s reply is published on our website; the email will contain the link to it.
You’ll have a chance to comment on the response, and send a follow-up request if needs be.
Notice the date on the screenshot above: the authority has at most 20 working days in which to respond (though they should respond “promptly”.) If you have not received a reply by this time, the site will automatically email you with information about the next steps you should take.
That’s it! If there’s something you need to know, we hope you’ll go ahead and give WhatDoTheyKnow.com a try.
A final thought
Many councils proactively publish information such as comments on planning – which means that a request like the one I make above would not be necessary. It’s always worth checking their website first, to save both your time and the council’s.
If your council doesn’t publish this kind of information as a matter of course, then the process of making a request can do two things.
First, it puts the council’s response in public, so that everyone can see it – and second, it goes towards showing that there is a demand for this kind of information. Your request just might prompt your council to start publishing more information.