Handling FOI requests – an opportunity not a threat to public sector comms teams
Last week, the CIPR’s Yorkshire and Lincolnshire group held a workshop for public sector communicators on handling Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We ran the event in response to growing concern about the increasing volume of requests received by local authorities, universities, FE colleges and others – and the lack of coherent approach to handling them.
Speakers Helen Lennox, Head of Corporate Affairs at Scottish Water and Steve Pearson, Communications and Media Manager at Rotherham Council, shared their strategies for handling FOI requests – and what can be learnt from getting it wrong!
Here are their top tips
1. Make sure comms people are involved
FOI requests should be treated like media enquiries – the response needs to be shaped and sense checked by a good communicator – either in the comms or senior management team. Even if the request is not from a journalist directly, the information you are providing can go into the public domain, whether it is the press or on blogs and other social media.
Engineers and other technical practitioners tend to hand over spreadsheets of data which mean very little to the outside world – and are left open to interpretation. Assume that the person submitting the request has no prior knowledge of the organisation and how you operate.
The process for handling FOI requests needs to have a whole internal communications strategy attached to it. The role of the comms team or senior manager needs to be understood and respected at all levels so that they can advise on the best response without having to be involved in every detail.
2. Answer the question
In the rush to respond to FOI requests, it is easy to hand over information irrelevant to the request. Or to waste time by not actually providing the information requested. Before submitting a response, take the time to get people from across the organisation to check it against the original request. Make sure it is presented in plain, simple language and answers the question directly. If a question is being asked about expenditure on air fares, analyse the expenses data and provide this particular information. This isn’t about hiding or withholding information, it is just about treating each request individually and tailoring it to the needs of the requester.
3. Set the response into context
Having said that, it is sometimes necessary to go above and beyond answering the specific question. It may be more appropriate to set the response into context. For example, comparing the figures against previous years or other areas of the organisation, may make it less of a “headline”. Providing more background as to why figures have risen or fallen, as you would in a statement to the media, will help to minimise backlash. This is about anticipating how the information will be used – and why someone is asking for it in the first place.
4. Anticipate what information people may want
Rotherham Council has seen the number of FOI requests dramatically increase. In times of cuts, this could easily get out of control. By anticipating what information people will want about your organisation and making it publicly available online, you will save a huge amount of time and resource – both by reducing the volume of formal requests and having template responses prepared, which can just be tailored. Some Councils like Rotherham have made an agreement with local press contacts to ask for information before putting in a formal FOI request.
5. See it as an opportunity not a threat
As someone who has been dealing with FOI requests since 2005 for one of Scotland’s largest and most vital service providers, Helen Lennox’s main piece of advice is to see the FOI Act as an opportunity, not a threat, for both comms teams and the whole organisation.
She said: “We’ve seen the FOI Act as an opportunity to create a culture of transparency, openness and ethical business practices. FOI requests can provide evidence of where practices and procedures can be improved and prompt positive action for change. FOI has blurred the lines between internal and external relations, which streamlines communications and makes the organisation stronger.” This means that comms teams are less likely to get caught out by skeletons in the closet and helps with planning and managing potential crises.
When it comes to reputation and crisis management, it seems the private sector could learn a lot from how public sector organisations are handling FOI requests. What do you think?
Thanks to Jon Boddy of Positive Impact for organising the event.