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Tips and techniques

That’s so meta: FOI-ing your FOI

The Canada flag flies on top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, March 6, 2023. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Did you know that you can file freedom of information requests about past FOIs?

The “meta-request,” an old FOI trick known to frequent filers, can be illuminating.

FOI requests kick off a complex internal process within public bodies. Information officers contact the people they think may have responsive records, sift through the information, consider advice on redactions, and finally redact, prepare and release the relevant files back to the requester. 

In some cases, this process is anything but straightforward: Files go missing, subject matter experts go on vacation, the FOI office may disagree with redactions, managers get involved and so on. (For a more detailed description of this process, see our guide on navigating the FOI process.) 

A meta-request captures this messy process, and gives you a peek behind the curtain.

Why would one want such a thing? I file meta-requests when my gut tells me something was off about the FOI process (the public institution avoided my e-mails and calls, say, or came up with a fee estimate I found unreasonable), in cases where I am appealing some aspect of the original request (see our guide on appeals), or as an educational tool, if I’m unsatisfied with the documents I received and want to understand how I could’ve worded my request or navigated the process differently.

If you’re a journalist, meta-requests can also lead to powerful stories. My favourite piece from The Globe and Mail’s 2017 Unfounded series, by my colleague Robyn Doolittle, used meta-requests to look at how police services coordinated their media response to her investigation. 

Well-crafted meta-requests are highly specific, and should not take an FOI officer a long time to process. In most cases, you’ll be asking for correspondence, including e-mails and chat logs, so keep your timeline as narrow as possible. Here’s some sample language:

To whom it may concern,

This is a request under this jurisdiction’s freedom of information legislation for records held by .

On , I filed request number to your institution. That request was completed and closed on .

Now, I am seeking access to all records generated as a result of that request, including but not limited to: internal and external e-mail correspondence, messages in applications such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, handwritten notes, memos and reports, between and , including the processing file/tracking record for that request. The above would include all records in or attached to the FOI’s processing file/tracking record for that request that reference the information requested, exemptions or discussions of the request. Exclude the original release package.

I would like this information sent electronically.

The language above does a few things: First, it notes the filing date, request number, public body name and completed date so that officers can track down your original request. Next, it specifies what kinds of records we want (everything generated as a result of that request) and what formats to search through (correspondence, chat messages, notes and memos). 

Crucially, we also note that we want the “processing file/tracking record.” This is essential. Processing files are logs of all actions taken on a given file, and are invaluable in figuring out which actions were taken on a request, and by whom. Here’s an example of a tracking file from a federal department.

Even if you have no FOIs to meta-request, the technique may still be useful to you. If you’re a journalist requesting comment on a story, consider FOI-ing internal communications surrounding that request once you hear back, especially if you feel like the public body was not fully forthcoming.

Back in 2021, I wrote a story about a facial recognition project run by the Canada Border Services Agency at Pearson International Airport. The CBSA had surreptitiously captured the faces of nearly three million travellers to identify potential deportees. While I unearthed documents that suggested dozens of people were deported as a result of these facial recognition matches, the CBSA would not confirm this and was unusually obtuse in its responses to my questions – so I filed a meta-request.

Another example comes from a 2012 story by journalist Tom Spears that laid bare the absurdity of the government’s marketing machinery.

Mr. Spears, then a science reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, was curious about a research collaboration between the federal National Research Council and NASA looking at snow. Mr. Spears called up a NASA scientist, who happily expounded on the project. He also asked the NRC for an interview, but they didn’t arrange one.

Perhaps sensing something had gone amiss – why would the NRC pass on an interview for what was clearly a light-hearted story about scientists trying to demystify the nature of snowfall? – Mr. Spears filed a meta-request

The e-mails he got back showed 11 different people had discussed his request, massaging and re-massaging an official statement for his story, and debating the pros and cons of giving an interview to the capital’s newspaper of record. Mr. Spears, meanwhile, just wanted to talk to a scientist and give Canada some credit for the research. The NRC ultimately provided only an obtuse, “snow-free” seven-sentence statement, along with a drawing of the airplane used in the research.

The Winnipeg Free Press ran a column on the incident, and Mr. Spears went on CBC Radio to discuss his meta-request. A zero-risk interview request about snow had morphed into a small media cycle about the muzzling of scientists and the government’s PR apparatus – ironically, the exact situation government communications officers were trying to prevent.

A parting thought: I don’t advise filing meta-requests for every FOI. Because they are requests for correspondence, they can be time-consuming, and they may annoy an FOI officer you’ll need to work with again in the future. Use them judiciously!

You can generate your own meta-request using our FOI letter generator.

Note: A previous version of this story said a meta-request I filed to CBSA had yet to arrive. As it turns out, it finally arrived last week – several weeks after this piece was written and edited. I regret the error.

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