The ABC of the FOI request

Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we all have the right to access an abundance of information held by public sector authorities.

From a PR perspective, the great thing about an FOI request is that it allows you to source data that’s not yet been tapped into and, if handled correctly, could be of genuine interest to the man on the street, making for an ideal consumer news story, or provide useful research for a company or business.

The possibilities are endless, allowing you to ask questions about the health service, education, environment, employment, transport or law enforcement in any part of the country. That said, it can be a very lengthy process which is not without its pitfalls.

Having carried out plenty of FOI requests at Red Marlin, here’s our guide to getting it right first time.

Who to write to. There are more than 400 councils plus additional public bodies in the UK, so researching contact details and sending requests is very time consuming. Consider whether you need to do a nationwide request, or just your local area, as this will simplify the process.

How to write a request. You can send your request by, email, letter or even fax. The request should be sent directly to the authority’s FOI Officer and include your name, contact details, the information you require, a data pick-up date rage, and how you would like to receive the data (by post or email).

Check before you ask. You might not be the first person to have thought of asking your question. Check council websites and check for information already researched and published by the government.

Plan your questions carefully. Sometimes the wording of a request can leave out a technicality or specifics that the person dealing with your request will need. You don’t want every council you have contacted to call you requesting clarification as it will double your time investment and cause delays, so be clear and accurate before hitting ‘send’.

Timeframe. If you have an idea for an FOI request, don’t expect to be able to send your press release and data to your news contacts the following week. Public authorities have 20 working days to respond, though some will only take a couple of days. Then you will need organise and analyse all the data you receive and build your story.

Consider costs. If your request is lengthy and detailed, the authority may contact you to explain that to carry out your request would exceed the usual number of hours allocated and that a fee is applicable if you choose to proceed. Unless entirely necessary, avoid this cost or dead end by keeping your request simple.

Information not held. It is not unusual to receive a response stating “this information is not held.” This is because not all councils record or manage all aspects of the public sector. In most cases you will be advised who to contact, for example, the county council or city council rather than the district council.

Expect inconsistencies. Not every council or body will manage their data in the same way. A good example of this is when requesting data from a specific date range or year. Some authorities will record their data according to the financial year rather than from 1st January to 31st December.

Logging the data you receive. Log the FOI request reference number you are given, your point of contact, the date the request was issued, and all the data you receive. A well planned excel spreadsheet will make the analysis stage a lot easier.


So in short, well thought-out planning, execution and data management makes all the difference, helping you get your FOI request right first time.

A successful request can lead to a great news story, such as this one for our client We ran a nationwide request to obtain data on parking tickets; how many were issued, how many were issued incorrectly, and how many were upheld. The data revealed inconsistencies across the UK which made for a story which made headlines across the UK.

If you would like further advice or assistance with carrying out an FOI request, please feel free to contact Red Marlin and speak to a member of our team.

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