While running mySociety’s Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com we’ve noticed that some public authorities are refusing to process valid FOI requests made via email, including some sent via our website. A few public authorities have gone so far as to switch off their dedicated FOI email addresses, and have been telling our users that they need to fill in a webform, or make a request by post.
This practice is against the law. For a Freedom of Information request to be valid, all that’s required is that a) it’s made in writing; b) it includes the requester’s name and an address for correspondence; and c) it describes the information being requested.
Requests made via email are valid and should be processed promptly, however they are received. We contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, who confirmed that:
“Whilst a public authority can request a form is filled in, you are not obliged to do this” and “this should not be made a compulsory requirement.”
We believe that citizens shouldn’t need to have a detailed understanding of FOI law in order to have valid requests for information logged and answered. Public authority staff should be trained to recognise valid requests, however they are received. The refusal by some authorities to recognise and process requests for information has led to unnecessary delays in requests being answered, and to some requests not being answered at all.
Whilst there are obvious benefits to public authorities from using case management systems, these should be capable of dealing with email and handling requests that are made via other means.
Where web-forms are an authority’s preferred form of contact, these should be simple to complete and not require requesters to hand over more personal information than they are required to by law. We’ve seen web-forms which ask requesters for information such as their date of birth, whether they are a journalist and the purpose of their request, for example, none of which the authority needs to know, and some of which might prejudice their response. Sometimes these additional fields are marked as compulsory.
We’ve also noticed that some authorities have started to reply to FOI requests using a “noreply” email address. This is poor practice because it makes it harder for requesters to ask for clarification or to request an internal review. Ideally, responses to requests should be sent from an address that accepts incoming mail.
How we’re responding
If a public body turns off its FOI contact email address and directs requests to a web-form, we try to find an alternative address to send requests to. We do all we can to get our users’ requests delivered, and we invariably succeed.
In a handful of cases we’ve resorted to sending our users’ requests to public bodies’ Chief Executives as part of our efforts to both get our users’ requests delivered and to encourage authorities to abide by Access to Information law.
Have you seen this practice?
While we have only seen this behaviour at a relatively small number of public bodies so far, some of those adopting this approach have included significant authorities such as local councils. It is important to identify and challenge this practice before it spreads more widely, so please let us know if you spot any examples. If you receive a message suggesting you have to make your request again via a web-form, do challenge that, citing the ICO guidance on valid requests.
We are keen to see the Information Commissioner step in and tackle systemic problems with the way public bodies deal with requests for information. We are encouraged by the recent commitment from the Information Commissioner’s Office to deliver “more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations”. The fact we publish FOI requests and their responses provides evidence which can support the Commissioner in this work.
Here are some examples:
“All FOI requests have to be put in writing to the Freedom of Information Officer, […] or by completing our online form.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“Can I ask that you please submit your enquiry via our website. The FOI process has recently changed and we have a form that will ask for all the information we need to process this.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“This Freedom of Information request has been received via a mailbox that does not record new requests. Please make your request using the online form under How to make Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations Requests on the Council’s website” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
“All freedom of Information requests now have to be applied for using our online form (see link sent in my colleagues previous email to you). Once we have your request it will be responded to within 20 days of receipt.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]
Our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow has just seen what we think is its largest ever release of information. National Highways has released 1.25 TB of bat survey data, made up of over 115,000 files, including:
- 786 videos – that’s over 250 hours of footage
- 54,570 audio files
- 354 spreadsheets
- 2,532 images
Requester Emma Tristram has been using data released via WhatDoTheyKnow to campaign against the proposed construction of the A27 Arundel Bypass. Commenting on the release, she told us:
“It’s fantastic that through WhatDoTheyKnow this recent bat survey data by National Highways is now available to the public. With these up to date bat surveys those fighting the devastating Arundel bypass scheme hope to strengthen their case that the scheme should be cancelled. The scheme would ruin four villages as well as a huge, very biodiverse wildlife area, which Natural England say is of international importance for bats.”
In response to a consultation about the proposed road building scheme, Natural England confirms the exceptional importance of the environment in and around the South Downs National Park and the need for its protection. They describe the area as containing irreplaceable and rare habitats and priority habitats (Habitats of Principal Importance) which “support an outstanding assemblage of species”. These include numerous maternity roosts of rare bats including Barbastelle, Bechstein’s and the Alcathoe bat.
The request was dealt with under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). EIR, like Freedom of Information requests, can be used to access more than just documents, correspondence and paperwork. As the climate crisis brings urgent challenges for our public institutions to address, access to environmental information will be increasingly valuable to businesses, campaign groups and the general public. Requests about how limited and in some cases irreplaceable environmental resources are being managed are just as important as requests around how public money is being used. By gaining access to raw data such as this, environmental campaigners are able to independently examine and verify the results of any studies that have been carried out.
Due to the size of the release, the authority has made the information available using a file sharing service. When authorities reply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow in this way, we will do our best to host their responses by uploading the data to our own servers. Hosting a release of this size poses some logistical challenges, but we are looking at ways of making the data available. If you have any suggestions about how we can best achieve this, please get in touch.
Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library (CC by/2.0)