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How do I ask for information?

How do I ask for information?

Requesting information is simple - all you have to do is ask.

You don't have to mention FOI (although you can), nor do you have to give any reasons for asking, or say why you want the information. You don't even have to live in Scotland.

Animated guide - How do I ask?

Requesting information

Follow these steps to successfully request the information you need. 

Use a recordable format

Make your request in writing or another form that can be kept for future use such as email, letter, fax, audio or video tape. If you want your FOI rights to apply, you can't ask verbally (for example by telephone or at an office) - unless you are asking for environmental information.

Include your full name

Include your real full name in the main text of the request and provide an email or postal address so the authority can reply. If you use a false name, the authority doesn't have to respond and the Commissioner and the courts won't be able to enforce your rights.

You must include your full name - it could be your first name and surname (e.g. Jane Smith), or first initial and surname (e.g. J Smith), or title and surname (e.g. Mrs Smith). A first name without a full surname will not be valid. Also, your name must be included in the main text of the request. It's not enough, for example, to rely on your name being visible in an email address or even as the sender of an email.

You can add other contact information such as a telephone number. It can help speed up the response if the authority can get in touch with you quickly to check a point.

Clearly ask for information

Ask for the information you want. Describe the information as clearly and as briefly as you can. The clearer you can be, the more likely the authority will respond quickly and accurately. Focus on the information you really want to see - if your request is too broad, it may be refused because of the cost of responding to it.

If you need the information in a particular format, tell the authority (for example, as a summary, or an audio version). The authority must provide the information in the format you prefer but only as far as is reasonable. In deciding what is reasonable, the authority must not discriminate against you If you have a disability.

Make your request to a Scottish public authority

Send your request to a Scottish public authority. It is a good idea to check whether the authority has a special FOI address or contact person. Use these details if you have them. 

But even if you don't have an FOI address, you can send your request to anyone in the authority, from a receptionist to a senior official.

Need more help?

The public authority has a legal duty to help you if you have any difficulties in making your request, or are unsure of what information you want. You can contact the authority to ask for advice or assistance.

We also have more useful guidance on making requests further down this page.

Your Right to Know (BSL) - How do I ask?

Tips for requesters

Freedom of Information (FOI) gives you the right to request and receive the information held by public authorities. The right applies to any information that is held by a public authority, and the authority must respond to each request within 20 working days of receiving it.

To ensure you receive the information you need, it can be a good idea to spend a little bit of time thinking about your request to get it right. The better you can describe the information you're looking for, the easier it will be for the public authority to find it for you.

Below you'll find some simple tips to help you get the most out of your right to know. You can also download the FOI Tips for Requesters here (PDF - 108KB)

Is the information already published?

Before submitting an FOI request, it's a good idea to check whether the information you're looking for is already published by the authority. Public authorities have a duty under FOI to publish certain types of information, under what is known as the "publication scheme" duty.

If the information is already published you'll be able to access it straight away, and won't have submit a request or wait for a response.

If you have internet access, try searching for the information on the public authority's website, or looking for their publication scheme or "guide to information" to find out what is published. You can also phone them to ask whether information is already available.

Keep FOI separate

When making an FOI request, try to keep it separate from any other correspondence. FOI requests can often be overlooked by an authority if they are contained in a lengthy email or letter which deals with other issues.

Keeping your FOI requests separate will help to ensure that they are easily spotted by the authority and responded to as quickly as possible. It should also ensure that your FOI response isn't held up while the authority addresses any other matters you have raised.

Ask for recorded information

FOI only provides a right of access to information which has been recorded by an authority. For information to be recorded, it must be stored and held in some way - e.g. in a report, spreadsheet, email, or a minute from a meeting.

Bear this in mind when wording your request, and try to ask for information which is likely to already be recorded and held. You should avoid asking for an employee's opinion or view on an issue, as this is often unlikely to be recorded.

For example, don't ask: "What were you thinking when you took the decision to shut the Scotstown school playground?"

Instead, you could try: "Please send me information from all reports, correspondence or communications about the decision to shut the Scotstown school playground."

Be specific

Try and be as specific as you can when describing the information you want. Information requests which are too vague or too wide-ranging might lead to a response taking longer, or might mean unnecessary work for the authority as staff look for information that you don't need. They also might lead to your request being refused on cost grounds.

Help the authority find the information you're looking for quickly by focusing your request as much as you can on the information you really need.

For example, this request could be very wide ranging: "Please send me all information you hold about Scotstown school."

It could be narrowed by:

  • Specifying the issue that you're interested in (e.g. the closure of the school playground)
  • Including a date period (e.g. "I am only interested in information created after 1 January of this year")
  • Specifying the types of information that you're interested in (e.g. information contained in reports, minutes, or email correspondence relating to the issue)
  • Mentioning individuals or departments that would have been involved in the creation of the information (helping the authority to narrow its search)

How you word your request will depend on the information you are interested in. However, the more specific you can be, the easier it will be for the authority to find the information, and send it to you quickly. And remember, you can always make a further request if you later find that you don't quite have everything you need.

Seek advice and assistance

It can often be helpful to have a quick chat with the authority before putting in your request. Every public authority has a duty to advise and assist people who are making requests for information.

You can ask the public authority to help you describe the information you're looking for more clearly and in more detail. Staff may explain what kinds of information the authority holds, and in what format. If they don't have the information you want, staff may be able to tell you which other organisation could provide it.

And remember that the duty to advise doesn't just apply before you make your request - you can get in touch if you have questions about any information that is sent to you in response.

If you're not sure who to talk to, the public authority's FOI officer is usually a good starting point. We can also provide advice and assistance on wording your request. You can contact us for more information.

Keep copies

Keep copies of your correspondence with an authority. While most FOI requests are answered first time with the information being provided, authorities are entitled to refuse requests in certain circumstances.

If an authority doesn't respond, or if you're unhappy with the reasons that an authority gives for any refusal, you'll need copies of your correspondence when you appeal to the Commissioner.

Find out more about the appeal process

Animated guide - advice and assistance

Some more quick tips

Additional tips and more information on information requests. 

Keep it simple

Don't over-complicate your request - keep it as simple as you can, and focus on the information you actually need.

Use the FOI contact address

Most authorities have a specific address for FOI requests. While any FOI request sent to an authority address will be valid, using the authority's designated FOI address can help your request reach the right person quickly. You should be able to find this easily, by either searching on their website or telephoning the authority.

Provide a phone number

You don't have to do this, but providing a phone number with your request can speed things along if the authority needs to contact you about your request.

Be polite

You may feel strongly about the subject of your request, but try and be as polite as you can when requesting information. Use everyday language, and avoid using any language that could be considered inappropriate or abusive - this could lead to your request being refused because it is "vexatious".

Say how you would like to receive information

You may find it helpful to say how you would prefer to receive information - e.g. electronically, or in paper format. Where practical, authorities should do this. If you are collating information, or comparing responses from different authorities you may find it helpful to receive information electronically.

Mention FOI

You don't have to mention FOI when you make an information request, but doing so can help ensure that your request is identified quickly and dealt with effectively.

Make a list

If your letter or email contains more than one request, try to present your questions as a numbered list. This can help both you and the authority keep track of each part of your request, and ensure that it is responded to fully.

Check before sending

Read through your request one last time before you send it. Try and put yourself in the shoes of the member of staff receiving your request. For example, think about:

  • Is it obvious that you're making an FOI request?
  • Is the information you're looking for clearly described?
  • Is the information you've asked for likely to be recorded?
  • Have you included your real full name and an address in the main text of your request (i.e. not just in your email address or 'From' box)?

Once you're happy, send it off, and good luck! You should receive your response within just over 20 working days. Our response calculator will help you work out when your response should have arrived by.

Your Right to Know (BSL) - Tips for requesters