In the UK we possess a laweye that can crack open public documents and allow us to scrutinise their contents in great detail. This law draws back the curtain and let’s us see emails and much, much more and it’s called the Freedom of Information Act. Use it. I have used it to startling effect.

Perhaps, telling you that Tony Blair’s laments bringing in the Act will motivate you to unglue yourself from your favourite couch and flex your freedoms…hey, you can ask questions privately (via email or letter), or in public domains (more about that below). What’s not to like?

But how do I know that Freedom of Information makes a difference?

  • I have used the FOI to find out how the UK challenged Facebook on privacy and did not even kept minutes of the meeting. Hey, I was alarmed too! I use Facebook all the time, but to not even keep minutes? Wow.
  • I determined, through the FOIA, that there is no record of how the controversial government policy, Preventing Violent Extremism (now shortened to simply Prevent), was given its name. Deplorable yes. Splashed over the national dailies? No. Perhaps, more seriously, I was also told that it was like, erm, sorta, well, difficult to say if Prevent had prevented anything. Ho hum.
  • More locally in Manchester, I discovered to my great sadness how a behemoth in Manchester’s voluntary sector landscape, Manchester Council for Community Relations (MCCR), had misrepresented how they had approached Manchester City Council for funding, funding which was earmarked for grassroots BAME communities.

Perhaps, one way that I learned that my information requests were working was when one day a Manchester councillor, in front of his peers, scoffed:

“Do you know what we do when we get an email from you, Zahid?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“We print it out and throw it in the bin!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the electronic data was stored for an eternity on the council’s servers and that deliberately deleting an email (from the server) would have turned a civil information request into a criminal one.

So, use the Freedom of Information Act and when you do, use the following phrases:

I would like to make an open government request for all the information to which I am entitled under the Freedom of Information Act. In order to assist you with this request, I am outlining my query as specifically as possible. However, if this request is too wide or too unclear, I would be grateful if you could contact me as I understand that under the act, you are required to advise and assist requesters.

And then you can put down the question you would like an answer for. However, with this great power will come a great number of attempts to foil you.

  • The answerer will, quite often, use up all the allowed time period to answer a question (20 days).
  • You will not be able to obtain personal information about yourself. So, you need to phrase your question precisely: precisely.
  • They will hide behind exemptions in the Act e.g. the BBC avoids answering the majority of questions. The BBC can withhold information if it believes the request relates to journalistic, literary or artistic activities. I would be surprised if you get a decent response from the BBC, but do celebrate profusely if you do.
  • Some answerers will state that your request will be too costly and take too much time.
    • Break down your questions into the smallest units possible.
      • If you’ve already thought about the answer, or where it will come from, you can provide pointers to reduce costs.
      • I once offered to carry out the investigative work to reduce the cost, but I was turned down.

You might need the following insights and tools to exert greater pressure:

  • Clarity about what you want to achieve.
  • Have an idea as to what the answer ought to be.
  • A full reading of the Act will help enormously.
  • Making use of the online and public What do they Know will increase the reach of the information.
  • You will need yards of patience. I have FOI requests which have not been answered for almost 5 years.

I would urge you to use this power and use it frequently and regularly. We often complain and do nothing to right the wrongs carried out in our name and with our very own money. It’s time we did.