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Has anyone here sent in a freedom of information (FOI) request to a government department as part of their research? Any tips? Did you spell out very precisely what you wanted to access or were you quite broad? Was your request successful? I'm preparing a FOI request for the Foreign Office (or The Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office as I now know it's called - for the era I'm interested in, it was called The Foreign Office!)... 

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  • Fascinating. No experience or tips in the slightest but it’s always interesting to hear the directions people’s research takes them in. Mine has involved learning how to wash, sort, card and spin a sheep’s fleece.

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    • Oh wow! Did you keep the fleece afterwards?! 

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      • I have a houseful of fleeces! I’m a spinner, knitter and weaver anyway and well-stocked with all all manner of woolliness. It was just the fleece preparation that I hadn’t done myself before.

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      • As a journalist I've sent in tonnes of FOI and yes, be as specific as possible. This is because there are tonnes of ways to get an FOI turned down. Basically, if they think it’ll cost too much to find the information you’re looking for, they’ll turn it down. So best ask for exactly what you want.

        You mention the foreign office. Remember that there are tonnes of exclusions around national security, commercial interests, etc. Anything remotely controversial might well be turned down. Obviously, I don’t know what you’re looking into and I’m not meaning to sound negative. But it is quite difficult to get anything meaningful out of an FOI on anything controversial. Good luck.

         

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        • I'm a journalist too, and I agree with James that you should be specific and as clear as possible. Sometimes they come back and say we don't keep the information in the form you are looking for and to get it in that form would be too time-consuming/expensive. So I have occasionally added that if they don't have the information in the way I have asked for (eg over a specific timescale), I would take it in another way (slightly different time period and so on).

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          • A little update. I had a reply from the FCDO (very quickly) and it was surprisingly helpful in suggesting ways to make the FOI more precise so that they could answer it. I've resubmitted it so fingers crossed! 

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            • Many years ago, to see my own files. As a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times I had to be cleared from time to time in order to attend certain events, and I was tremendously curious to find out what kinds of files they had on me. Took a while, but I did receive what I asked for. But it was sooo long ago, I don't remember the process very well at all. I did get the files, though. And was a bit unnerved to see that some of my college sit-ins and things were included. I'm a 60s kid...

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