VIDEO: FOI tips from Matt Burgess

In a guest post for OJB, Anna Noble interviews FOI expert Matt Burgess.

In just 4 years Matt Burgess has already built up an impressive reputation in the media industry. The founder of FOI directory, a site which covers FOI policy, curates the best FOI stories, and provides directories of FOI emails, and the author of a book on the subject, his journalistic career has ranged from a local press agency and a crowdsourcing project to specialist publishing, and now technology bible Wired.

From death knocks to reporting on gas

It was only 2012 when Matt was juggling his own journalism studies with being editor of Sheffield University’s student newspaper, Forge Press.

He didn’t land a job straight away. It took 7 months after graduation, and a move to Birmingham, while he spent his spare time building up the key journalist’s resource FOI Directory alongside working in a supermarket.

That first job came at local press agency HotSpot media. Here he developed skills in finding human interest stories online while carrying out traditional ‘death knocks‘.

Knocking on a door unannounced and asking a family for a reaction about a recent loss  is a tough introduction to journalism, and Matt admits:

“It’s not the most pleasant thing and, to be honest, it wasn’t really for me; I didn’t enjoy that.”

For a change of beat Matt moved to London to write for business to business publications on the rail, oil and gas industries.

70 experts, 1 book, 1 site and 1 mailing list

Matt Burgess speaking to students at Birmingham City University

Matt Burgess speaking to students at Birmingham City University

Meanwhile Burgess was still maintaining FOI Directory, and had had a proposal for a new book about Freedom of Information accepted by publishers Routledge.

“You know, it’s not Harry Potter, but hopefully it’s practical…”

To write Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists Matt spoke to 70 experts on the use of FOI requests, looking to show best practice by journalists and how people actually respond to those requests.

It is a welcome addition to FOI literature, filling the gap between (and updating) Heather Brooke’s introductory survey Your Right To Know and Montague and Amin’s FOI Without The Lawyer.

In the video above, Matt explains some of the key techniques and issues involved in making Freedom of Information requests. 

And Matt continues to be a key voice on the subject, launching a mailing list in June and reporting on parallel developments around the Act: an inquiry which has attracted widespread concern alongside a grassroots push to get the act broadened to apply to private companies. On the latter he told online journalism students at Birmingham City University:

“There should be transparency in the public services provided by private companies, and the right of the people to make FOI requests about these projects should be established in a contract.”

On the attempts water down the Act, Burgess feels that concerns that FOI causes a ‘chilling effect’ for public bodies are misplaced:

“If politicians and civil servants aren’t documenting their decisions and the reasons behind those then that’s a huge problem to accountability and transparency. And if this is the case – and there’s been very few [specific] examples [given] so it may be a myth – then it shouldn’t be happening because these people are elected into power and they should be held accountable to the public and the taxpayers who pay their wages.”

A version of this post was first published on Medium.


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