The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act has been one of the greatest innovations in British political history in the way it has opened up Government to the public, allowing us to see a great deal of what is done with our money behind closed doors. It's not perfect, it's not comprehensive enough and it's not backed up by sufficient punishments for those public bodies that flout it, but even the sneak peek behind the scenes that it allows means public servants can no longer operate secure in the knowledge that us poor chumps will never find out what they are doing with our money.
We make great use of FoI requests both in compiling large research papers and in uncovering one-off instances of waste, which in turn attract media attention to the fact that all too often our money is poured down the drain. Increasingly, our activists are sending off their own Freedom of Information requests to uncover waste around the country, so I thought it could be handy to provide a quick anatomy of a successful use of the Act.
We noticed that this company listed the British Council (taxpayer funding = £200m) as a satisfied customer - having apparently commissioned a tailor-made typeface from them, "British Council Sans". In the words of Tony Bains, Head of Design at the British Council,
Commissioning our own font was the best investment we could have made in our identity
This struck us as: a) completely unnecessary, b) probably very expensive. Just about every publicly funded body is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and a quick look at the British Council's web site revealed their FoI department's contact details.
The key thing with writing an FoI request is to get the wording right. It should be clear, functional and unequivocal about what you want to find out - don't worry about it being boring, repetitive or too pernickety. Whilst many FoI Officers are perfectly happy to release information, some are expert at wriggling through cracks in peoples' requests and if the information you're after is particularly sensitive they may well be under a lot of pressure to find an excuse not to tell you. Make the wording precise, though, and they will find it difficult not to. Remember, too, to specify you are demanding the information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000!
In this instance we asked:
I would like to know details of
i) how much money was paid by the British Council to Monotype Imaging for the production and design of British Council Sans, the British Council's font.
ii) in what financial year this transaction took place.
iii) what font the British Council used in its documents prior to the introduction of British Council Sans.
iv) please send me a copy of the British Council Sans font.
Once you've made your request, they have 20 days to reply. Mark it in your diary (in this case June 19th) sit back and wait!
Dear Mr Wallace
Apologies for the delay in responding to your request.
The British Council paid £50,000 overall for the production and design of 'British Council Sans'. Payment was made after receipt of two invoices: the first payment date for £30,000 was 26/3/2002 and a second final payment of £20,000 on 25/7/2002. I understand that the old fonts were Century Schoolbook and Univers.
Please find attached a copy of the font. To my knowledge, no similar requests have been received by the British Council...
Our suspicions were proved right - £50,000 for a typeface is ridiculous to say the least. Here it is, in all its £50,000 glory, the font that cost taxpayers more than a year's salary for three soldiers:
So, we phoned media contacts, sent a press release to the newspapers and kept our fingers crossed for the next day...
The Daily Mail and The Sun ran the story - waste has successfully been revealed, and public servants held to account!
Of course, it doesn't always run so smoothly. Sometimes you'll find that the waste you may have suspected didn't occur, or the body you are investigating may try to block your request, in which case you may want to appeal to the Information Commissioner.
We'll provide tips on how to squirrel out information under those more difficult circumstances another time, but in the meantime, why not try putting in your own Freedom of Information requests? You can look at your local council, Primary Care Trust or Regional Development Agency, a Government Department or any one of 1,162 quangos and other agencies we recently uncovered. This is about throwing open the way the state spends our money, so go to it, and if you uncover taxpayers' money being wasted, let us know!