Earlier this week the Appeal Court ruled that letters written by Prince Charles to various Government ministers should not be kept secret. The Guardian has long argued that these letters are a matter of legitimate public interest and should therefore be released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
This story demonstrates that making an FOI request is now a tactic regularly used by many journalists to get access to information that might otherwise be kept from them. In particular, it is quite common for journalists to use FOI requests as “fishing expeditions” designed to find out what information is out there. But it’s not just journalists; campaign groups, individuals with a grudge and businesses looking for information to help then write tenders are all using FOIs.
The important message here for public sector bodies covered by the Act is that they need to have a clear strategy in place to manage and respond to requests and that communications needs to be at the core of this. Internal Communications has a key role to play here, especially in reminding staff that any letter or email which they write, even if only intended for internal use, could be the subject of an FOI request.
In my experience, FOI requests should be treated in the same way as media enquiries. Even if the request is not from a journalist, the information will inevitably find its way into the public domain. However, I would also recommend looking at FOI requests as an opportunity rather than as a threat. By carefully managing your responses to FOIs, you can use then as an opportunity to show that your organisation is transparent and ethical.