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Where should I look for the information that I need?

If you are trying to find information about an action or decision by the public authorities in your country:

  • you may be able to find that information already available on a public register or website
    • as part of a document published by state authorities
    • as information provided to state authorities
  • the FoI laws in your country may entitle you to demand that the public authorities disclose that information to you
  • you may be able to find the information elsewhere, for example it may be held by a private company

In this section of the guide we look at these in turn.

1

Public registers of information

The information that you are seeking may already be available in a public register or archive.  For example:

  • it may be part of a document published by state authorities, or
  • it may be information that has been provided (by you or by someone else) to state authorities.

Bear in mind that not all registers of publicly available information are accessible online. Some registers must be searched manually, and others are accessible via an official custodian. Sometimes the information is stored in more traditional ways, for example official gazettes and recordings of legislative proceedings.

2

Documents published by state authorities

Some governments and state authorities publish documents in official registers or databases which may be accessible online.   Such documents are commonly published and held for different reasons. Those which are held for the purposes of public consultation (e.g. to allow members of the public to understand state proposals for development or expenditure, to allow affected people to comment on applications for permissions or licenses) are likely to be readily available to you upon request. Other documents may explain the reasons why public decisions were taken and the process for that decision-making – and these documents may not be immediately accessible without an express targeted request. If the subject-matter is sensitive, they may not be available at all.

Finally, bear in mind that it may not be wise to assume that the register contains all of the documents which the state authority is obliged to publish.

EXAMPLE:   The register of official documents of EU institutions. Some of the documents listed on this online register are available directly through the website; others can be requested.

3

Information given to state authorities

Many types of information and data are filed with state authorities and made accessible by them. Remember that these may include personal data about the individual, but may also include information about activities by other citizens or companies (e.g. planning applications, and applications for other types of permit or licence) and information about companies and other types of non-natural person.

4

Information requests to public authorities

As we have explained earlier in this guide, many countries and international organisations have procedures that permit individuals to demand information from public bodies. See the Practical Guide to filing information requests for a hands-on explanation as to how to pursue these types of request.

TIP: Before further disseminating information obtained in any of these ways, check whether there are any limitations attached to its use. Sometimes, information may be copyrighted, even if it is found in a public register. The body or entity that provides this information will usually inform you whether the information must be treated confidentially or whether other restrictions apply.

5

Information from companies and other private entities

In general, private individuals and companies are not required to disclose their private documents (although they may be required to do so if they perform a public function, or if they become involved in court proceedings).

Therefore, as we explained in the section on “How do “rights to information” work?”, it is generally harder to obtain information from companies and other entities in the private sector.

However, in some countries the rules regarding citizen entitlement to demand information from state entities also apply to private bodies that perform a public function, such as a power company or a privately run hospital.

One of the reasons for this is that most countries require that companies, charities and other private entities which benefit from limitations from liability or which receive public monies must file with public authorities information about their activities, financial position, and owners/directors. Often this information is made available for public inspection. If you are dealing with a large company, you find it worthwhile finding out whether it has made any publicly accessible filings about it financial position or its activities.

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