Challenging misleading healthcare claims

Tools & resources

How to make responsible and effective FOI requests

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) and Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) introduced a right to information held by public authorities which came fully into force in 2005. However, like all rights, it should be used responsibly by those who exercise it.

Here, FOI Man (@FOIManUK), a public sector employee with several years’ experience of advising on and answering FOI and EIR requests, outlines the best way to make sure you get the most out of both regimes without creating unnecessary burdens on public authorities.

Except where otherwise specified below, FOI is used to denote both pieces of legislation.

Why should I care?

FOI is a right. Full stop. You absolutely have the right to ask a public authority for any information that you like. Unless your request is invalid, vexatious, covered by one of the exemptions, or the authority doesn’t hold it, they have to make the information available to you. To an extent, you’re even allowed to dictate in which format they should provide it to you. So you have the power.

But should you use that power? And if you do use it, should you consider the impact it might have on the public authority concerned? In these times of cuts and mass redundancies, is it right that scarce resources are spent digging around for information that you might have lost interest in by the time you get a response? And if you’re a campaigner, trying to engage your local politicians, do you really want to risk getting on the wrong side of them through your use of FOI? Is it a Pyrrhic victory if you get your information at the cost of officials’ time that could have been spent on doing the things you’re campaigning for?

And there could be implications further down the road if we don’t use FOI responsibly. In other countries where FOI has been in place for years, enthusiastic early adoption has often led to a backlash from politicians and the courts. In Ireland, a prohibitive fees regime was introduced; in New Zealand, the courts considering appeals began to interpret exemptions restrictively. Over here, we’ve seen an attempt by politicians to remove themselves from FOI (thankfully rewarded with contempt from all sides), and there are regular calls from senior officials in various parts of the public sector for their particular area to be excluded from the legislation.

It’s really easy to fire off an email asking for information. You can even send it to several thousand public authorities in one go. But be aware of the resource and other implications of that simple act. Here are my ten top tips on how to make effective, responsible use of FOI.

Ten Top Tips on Making Responsible and Effective FOI Requests

1.  Count to ten before clicking ‘Send’

Or better still, sleep on it. Consider if you really do want the information, and if you do, whether you have asked the right questions.

 

2. Do your research

Is the information already available on the authority’s website, perhaps in their Publication Scheme? Is there information there that could be used to make your question(s) more relevant or incisive? Has the question been asked before? There may be a ‘Disclosure Log’ on their website, or failing that, you could check WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

 

3. Take care when making ‘round robin’ requests

Remember that the more organisations you send your request to, the more public money will be spent on answering your request. And use your research to weed out authorities that the request isn’t relevant to.

 

4. Try an informal approach first if possible

You may already have a professional relationship with somebody within the public authority. Alternatively, the authority may publish direct contact details for the department that deals with the issue you’re concerned about. Try contacting them first to sound them out. At the very least they may be able to advise you as to what to ask for, and occasionally, they may even be able to give you more information than you would be entitled to under FOI.

 

5. Be specific

If you do decide to make a FOI request, cite the Act in your request (you don’t have to but it can help to avoid confusion). Make your request as clear as possible. Don’t be ambiguous. You can’t blame a public authority for misinterpreting your request if you’ve not specified clearly what you want.

 

6. Don’t be greedy

It’s tempting to throw everything including the kitchen sink into your request. Don’t. Keep your request short and to the point. You can always make other requests later if you want more information.

 

7. Be polite

Try not to assume that the person reading your request is determined to avoid answering your question(s). It’s likely that members of your own family, perhaps some of your friends, are public servants. Would you feel content to send them your request?

 

8. Be patient

Your request isn’t the only request that will be received by the authority. The people who have to answer your request will also have a number of other responsibilities to meet. Try to be patient and accept that you may not get an answer as quickly as you would like. In the vast majority of cases you will get a response before the statutory deadline of 20 working days (and note that phrase, ‘working days’ — in effect, organisations have a month to respond, give or take a couple of days).

 

9. Read the response carefully, and if necessary, use the Appeal process

A lot of effort goes into answering FOI requests, even (often especially) when your request is refused. Make sure you’ve understood the response.

Accept that in some cases, the authority just does not hold the information you’ve asked for. You may think they should, but if they haven’t, you can’t use FOI to force them to create it. Often the authority will explain why they don’t hold it — try to read their explanation with an open mind.

If your request has been refused using one of the exemptions (FOI) or exceptions (EIR), the authority should have provided you with an explanation of which ones apply and how. Where a public interest test has been applied, they should have explained the arguments for and against disclosure.

Try to take a step back and consider whether their arguments make sense. For instance, although you might like to have access to information about employees, you probably understand that some of that information is protected by the Data Protection Act. Whilst you may not be happy with the response, it may be that the Act has been applied correctly.

If the arguments don’t make sense or you disagree with them, and you still want the information, use the authority’s Internal Review process. The authority should have sent you details of this process with their response. All you really need to do though is to write to them, asking for an internal review. It will help your case if you set out the reasons why you think the exemptions/exceptions don’t apply. Where a public interest test has been applied, you can put forward your own arguments for disclosure if you don’t think these have been considered.

Again, be patient whilst waiting for a response, and when you do receive it, read it carefully. If you are still dissatisfied with it, consider contacting the Information Commissioner and asking him to review the response. Bear in mind that this may take some time — though turnaround times at the Commissioner’s Office have improved considerably in the last year.

 

10. Use the information you receive responsibly

If you want to use the information you’ve been sent, do so responsibly. One example of this is asking for permission if you want to reproduce a document that’s been sent to you (or at the very least acknowledging the source). Even though you’ve been sent the information, the copyright will normally still belong to the authority concerned or whoever gave it to them.

If you’re reporting on the information disclosed, try to provide context. Often the response will include an explanation of why, for instance, so much was spent on the particular activity you’ve asked about, or how spending compares with other similar organisations. Even if it doesn’t, it will often be a straightforward task to find contextual data or background. Whilst it may not make for as spectacular a story, excluding these facts could distort the impression given to your audience. This impression may well be convenient in the short term, but it could damage your reputation with the organisations that provide information to you, and ultimately with your audience if they learn that they are being misled.

Other resources you may find useful

arrowgreenInformation Commissioner’s guide to making FOI requests

arrowgreenInformation Commissioner’s Charter for Responsible FOI Requests

arrowgreenInformation Commissioner’s guidance on appealing decisions

arrowgreenNCVO guide to using FOI for campaigning

 

Originally posted at How to make responsible and effective FOI requests. Reproduced with permission.

FOI Man can be followed on Twitter as @FOIManUK.

Also see:

arrowgreenFOI & Copyright: What’s the Big Deal?

arrowgreenRe-using Public Sector information: what you need to know

Finding hidden text in web pages

What appears on a web page is determined by its underlying code. Content can be removed from a page by deleting it or hiding it (by preventing it from appearing when the page loads) — viewing the source code can sometimes show you 'commented out' text that has been hidden from the page in this way. This was one of the methods used by bloggers to demonstrate that Gillian McKeith's Twitter account was an official one, after it was hidden from her website to disguise the link between the two.

In Internet Explorer: View > Source
In Firefox: Ctrl+U (or View > Page Source)
In Safari: Ctrl+Alt+U (or View > View Source)
In Chrome: Right-click > View page source

Commented out text is placed within <!-- and -->. However it's also worth searching for key terms (using Ctrl+F) too.

How to find out who owns a website

Sometimes, it is not clear who is responsible for claims being made on a website. Responsible websites will provide appropriate contact details, but occasionally the actual seller will not be obvious. However, there are easy steps you can take to find out who owns the domain name — although this could conceivably be different to the person or company responsible for the claims made on that website. Occasionally, some useful information can be gleaned from knowing who owns the domain name.

Whois

The domain name is what you type into a browser to take you to a website. This is usually very closely related to the organisation that runs the website and advertises its products or services.

The Whois system can provide the name of the domain name owner (the Registrant) and contact details. There are many websites that provide Whois services including Who.is  and Network Tools. Some can provide other useful information as well.

As an example, lets see what information can be found for the website of the British Chiropractic Association, www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk.

Using Network Tools, type their domain name (chiropractic-uk.co.uk) into the box, ensure 'Whois' is selected and click on 'Go'.

Since we are checking a UK website, the results come from the UK Registry operator (Nominet):

Results returned from whois.nic.uk:

Domain name:
chiropractic-uk.co.uk

Registrant:
British Chiropractic Association

Registrant type:
Unknown

Registrant's address:
c/o Typeline, 26 The Hawthorns
Charvil
READING
Berkshire
RG10 9TS
United Kingdom

This is publicly available information and gives us the name and address of the Registrant.

Note that if the domain is used as part of a business, trade or profession, Nominet Terms and Conditions require that the Registrant's name and address are made public and accessible to whois queries.

iIf you find a website that is clearly part of a business, trade or profession, but which has the Registrant type as 'UK Individual' you can report this to Nominet who will investigate and may take action against the Registrant.

This simple Whois query will usually give you details of who controls the website and therefore the person or company responsible for claims made on that website. This may also indicate a link with some other organisation.

However, even if you are not sure who owns the domain name or who runs the website, the onus is not on you as complainant to provide that information; you should still submit the complaint and leave it to that organisation to find out.

UK Individual

Finding deleted and changed webpages

There are many guides to using the Google search engine and there's no need to repeat it all here. However, the following features are useful to anyone trying to gather evidence for a complaint.

Search engine website caches

Other useful Google functions

Browser add-ons for searching cached pages

Further reading

Search engine website caches

As search engines trawl through the Internet, they creates snapshot copies of the pages they finds — these copies are called cached pages. If a website owner removes or changes the content of a page on their website, the cached copy will be deleted or updated the next time the search engine checks it. This means that, even though a page may have changed or been deleted, it may still be available in the search engine's cache. How long it remains there depends on how frequently the search engine checks that website: popular websites and pages may be checked very frequently, but for less popular ones, the old cached page may remain there for days or weeks.

This means that, even though a page has been changed, it may be possible to see what it said before that change. This can be very useful in researching.

Access to these cached Google pages is easy and can be done in several ways.

Search results

When Google returns the results of a search, it usually has a link to the cached page — click on the small down arrow to the right of the website's url and click on 'Cached':

BCA search results

This will give you Google's cached version of the website's home page.

However, if you want to look at a different page and already know its URL, you can look at the Google cached page by entering the following into the Google search box in your browser (Chrome and Firefox) or in the Google search box:

Google cache search

Cache results

At the top of the returned page, Google gives information about the cached page. For example:

Google cache header

This gives the date and time Google cached the page, which could be useful to help determine whan a page changed. It also gives a link to the current page.

A useful feature of the cached page is that any search terms you used will be highlighted on the page, making it much quicker, especially in a text heavy page, to see how frequently your search terms appear and in what context.

Other Google functions

Google has other useful functions related to this. If you enter info: followed by a URL, you will see something like this:

Google info

Of these, the fourth one is very useful. This allows you to see all pages that Google has found on that website. You can get to this directly by entering site: followed by the URL into Google's search box. If you add a search term as well, Google will return a list of the pages on that website that have that word in them. This is Google's Site Search and is useful particularly if the website does not offer its own search facility and it will frequently return more results.

For example, if you enter:

site:www.chiropractic-uk.co.uk "simon singh"

…you will see all pages on the BCA's website that mention Simon Singh. Currently, there are none.

A feature of Google's Site Search is that it will return pages even if they are not currently accessible from a link on another page, but which were linked to when Google indexed the site. This is particularly useful in finding pages that have been 'removed' but are still, in fact, on the website and can still be returned by search engines.

Because a page is in Google's cache, it can appear in the search results, bringing a viewer to their website, even though it is disconnected from the rest of the web site.

If you can't remember the exact URL you can search for a word within the URL using inurl: and add a search term to refine things, eg inurl:nightingale skeptics and site:URL filetype:pdf would let you uncover .pdfs within a given site's URL. There are many other search refinements in the 'Advanced search' option — see Further reading, below.

Wayback machine

This is the Internet's Tardis. The Wayback Machine is on archive.org and it caches a large number of webpages and allows you to look at them on different dates (unlike the search engine caches that only retain the page the last time it crawled it). Note that it doesn not capture every change made, but it can be very useful for finding content at some previous time.

Browser add-ons for finding cached pages

If you use Firefox you can download the 'Resurrect Pages' add-on gives easy access to a number of caches, including Google's and the Wayback Machine. For Google's Chrome browser, try the Web Cache extension.

Further reading

arrowgreenGoogleGuide on cached pages

arrowgreenGoogle Web Search Help

arrowgreenFinding things that aren't there any more on the internet, and storing things that are

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