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Freedom of Information

www.informationhandyman.com

The Information Handyman – turning clutter into knowledge

Freedom of information: answering requests 4th June 2006

We've covered how to ask a Freedom of Information Act question to a public authority, but how should you expect your public authority to reply? Or, for those who are receiving a request, how do you best go about answering it? Openess, transparency and a willingness to be accountable for actions are the bottom line, but let's go over the specifics.

The first thing that should happen when a request is received is for it to be logged into some monitoring software. This can be anything from an Excel spreadsheet to tailor-made FOI software, to a work-flow solution built into an electronic document and records management system. The free 'FOI Monitor' software will cover most of your needs and produces extensive statistical reports as required by the Department of Constitutional Affairs as well as documenting public interest test decisions. FOI statistics ought to be available from the authority's website.

Next should be the initial response letter. Points that ought to be included include the date the request was received and when it is expected to be answered by, a succinct information policy, and contact details for the staff member who is managing the request. I've often used this initial FOI request response letter, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information uses it as a 'best practice' sample, though changing the dates, addresses and logos to suit the needs of your authority will be necessary. The Department of Constitutional Affairs offers a number of other standard responses here.

Phoning up to clarify any points can really open up the dialogue and save a great deal of time. Though the public authority cannot ask what the requestor wants the information for, it can be pertinent, if
requestors have asked for more about X than they or you can handle, to use the skills of good reference librarians by asking non-leading questions such as “what it is about X that you want to know about?”
This can whittle the answer down considerably.

Keep a log of all your correspondence and the progress of each request. This is really important since if a review is required at any stage you’ll be expected to prove or justify your actions, particularly in the case of a public interest test having been conducted.

Being well informed of changes to do with the Act is important for the integrity of the authority. This will ensure not too much or too little information is revealed and can prevent requestors coming back for a review. Updates can be found by subscribing to the Freedom of Information JISCmail Discussion List at www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/freedom-of-information.html or checking the Information Commissioner’s website at www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk, particularly the decision notices.

In order to be as fair as possible in providing access to information, particularly businesses, authorities ought to publish released documents on their website so all contenders for the information have equal access and any commercial advantage is undermined to a certain degree.

Finally, the response must outline the steps for a review to be made of any decision. These ought to be independent from the people involved in the first response, and all factors of the case need to be reviewed before it can proceed to a further review with the Information Commissioner's Office.

Good luck with your request, whether you're answering it asking it, and don't hesitate to drop the Information Handyman a line if you're having any difficulties.

UK Freedom of Information: How to submit a request 22nd May 2006

There was much ado in January 2005 when the Freedom of Information Act came into force, with newspapers publicising some high profile instances where they had used the Act to obtain information. However, many people are still in the dark as to how exactly to submit a request. "Is there a special form to fill out and where do I get it from?" was one question we received recently. Putting in a freedom of information act request is quite the opposite, however. You don't even need to quote the act. Let's explore just what you do need to supply whe making a request.

Anyone – anywhere in the world – can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to any public authority or wholly owned public company in the UK. There are over a hundred thousand public authorities, which include everything from the Home Office down to your local parish council – all authorities come under the umbrella of the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Constitutional Affairs has a full list of public authorities.

You can request any information the authority holds. Don't be shy here – the authority has very limited grounds for refusal, and in many instances needs to have a watertight argument that it's in the public's best interest to withhold the information if it does decline to provide you with it. But you do need to request information that it holds – and you can't ask for information that it holds on behalf of another organisation, or an opinion. The authority needs to be able to find and provide you with the information, rather than create it.

That's the authority's duty, but what of yours? You need to provide a name – which can be a pseudonym – a request for information, and an address. Then you need to give it to anyone that works for the public authority. Though you are within your rights to send a text message to the head of the department's tea maker asking for the information to be sent to a hotmail address, as with anything, your chances of getting good service will be enhanced if you are professional in your dealings.

Finding out the correct contact person for your request from the authority's Internet site (it ought to be under 'publication scheme') will ensure they don't have to rush a reply to you which is what might happen if your request gets delayed in the organisation's postal system.

Including as many contact details you have, such as email address, physical address, work, mobile and home phone numbers can assist the authority in contacting you should they need to clarify anything.

Your query ought to be as specific as possible, outlining exactly the information you require. Though there's no compunction for you to do so, if you explain what you require the information for this can assist the authority to answer your request in the most suitable manner.

Once you've written your query, read back over it to check your spelling and ensure it makes sense. Finally, don't forget to date your correspondence!

Once the authority receives the request, they ought to send you some acknowledgement saying so, and let you know when you will hear back from them. If they're unclear about anything, they may reply or call to clarify as they have a duty to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants.

If you haven't received your response within twenty working days – about a month later – the authority has fallen foul of the law, though it does have a right to extend the deadline if they need to conduct a public interest test, but only to a reasonable limit. This 'public interest test' extension has caused a number of requestors to become disgruntled and the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) are pushing for some restrictions on its use. Whatever the case, the authority is required to inform you of the delay and explain how long they expect it will take.

If you're not happy with the response, the authority's covering letter to you ought to outline ways in which you can appeal their decision. If the authority has invoked the public interest test, it has declined to issue you with information that you want, and their arguments for non-disclosure aren't fully disclosed or seem vague, don't hesitate to appeal their decision. It is free to do so.

Initially ask for an internal appeal, whereby they'll have to appoint someone else to go over the request and answer it. If their answer is the same, take it to the ICO. The authority is obliged to inform you how to do this, and if you're not satisfied with the ICO's decision, appeal to the Information Tribunal. They have reversed a number of ICO decisions so far so get in there and set a precedent. If you still don't agree there is always the courts, which may cost you, but we are yet to see any judgements from them over freedom of information.

After all, the Freedom of Information Act is all about opening up government to make it more transparent and accountable. Eventually people will begin trusting their civil servants again. They will also start participating in their democracy, and be able to enjoy living in a more inclusive society. So get in there and find out the truth. If they are wrong, expose them. If you're wrong, write back and thank them for their time and effort. And if they could have done better, pester them to make changes that will ensure your, and ultimately everyone's, peace of mind.

Summary
 

• Over five years experience in public, academic, government and corporate environments
• Masters degree with merit in library and information studies
• Competent implementer of EDRMS, with sound knowledge of their functional requirements
• Manages staff, supervisors and teamwork with tact and competence
• An entertaining public speaker and sought after author
• Extensive records management theoretical knowledge and practical experience
• Highly customer focused, with glowing references from employers

Personal Details of Adam Pope

 

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Adam Geoffrey Pope
Flat 6, Lancaster House,
Rushcroft Road
London SW2 1JS
07977238873
adam@adampope.net
12th November 1970
Dual. Born in Swindon, England. NZ citizenship granted 1989
Fighting fit. Non-smoker
45 words per minute
International, full and unblemished
MS Office (including Access), OpenOffice, Livelink, Photoshop, Flash, Dreamweaver
Belbin Myers-Briggs
German, British sign language

 

Information Management Career

• Information Manager for the Government Actuary's Department with records and library responsibilities including the procurement and implementation of an EDRMS and managing FOI requests. I also developed the FOI Monitor which is now in use by hundreds of public authorities. August 2004-present. Email Mark Cooper 020 7211 2706
• Temporary Corporate Records Manager for London Borough of Camden’s 8500 staff. I set up and initiated a records audit, managing 4 staff in the process from January to July 2004. As a result of my contributions I was nominated by the Local Government Group of the RMS-GB to be their representative on the Executive Council. Email Sandie Dunne. 020 7974 6100
• Temporary Academic Business Librarian Looking after 9000 students and their faculty, I managed a three person team to deliver current awareness alerts, market a database, manage the collection, supervise the budget and provide reference and library counter duties from August 2003 to January 2004. Email Ginny Malone, Learning Services Manager. 020 8331 8193
• Interloans Librarian for AgResearch. Supervising a three member team to fulfill up to 500 Interloan requests per week. 2002-3 Written reference from Val Hector, Library Manager Customer Comments
• E-Journals Librarian for AgResearch. Managing access to over 1500 electronic journals to four sites via the corporate Intranet. 2002-3. Written reference from Val Hector, Library Manager
• Librarian for the Ministry of Health in Hamilton. Managed the acquisition, cataloguing, circulation, and deselection of materials as well as providing reference services. 2001-2. Written reference from Sue Foster, National Manager.
• Document Management Services Officer managing over 60,000 corporate documents, including the devolution of 25,000 to five hospitals and training their records staff. 2001-2. Email James Murphy, HealthShare Manager.
• Circulation Librarian at Waikato Polytechnic Libraries. Often in sole charge of both a large and small academic library, I performed circulation duties and fielded numerous health reference enquiries. 2000-1 Written reference from Sheryl Morgan, Library Manager.
• Relief and ESOL teaching at Ngaruawahia High School, Fraser and Huntly Colleges, and the University of Waikato Language Institute. 1996-2000. Written reference from Bruce Higginson, Senior Master, Fraser College.

Academic

Victoria University

Masters in Library and Information Science 2000-2003 Transcript
Management of Information Services A
Information in Society A
Management of Library Services A-
Records Management A-
Research Methods B+
Archives Management B+
Intellectual Access to Information B+
Information Technology B+
Information Sources and Services B+
Bibliographic Organisation B+
Research Project B+

University of Waikato

Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults 1997 Transcript

Bachelor of Arts with Honours 1991-1994 Transcript Written reference from David Neilson
Major: Political Science
Supports: Economics and German
Average Grade: 68%
Range: 93% to 48%
Pass Rate: 100%

 

 

 


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