In the UK all businesses have the right to request information recoded by a public body, as long as it is non-confidential in nature. This is thanks to the Freedom of Information Act which is in place across British and Scottish law. The Act works in two ways, public bodies are required to publish certain pieces of information, and any member of the public can request information from public authorities.
By making a submission you are not necessarily guaranteed to receive the information you desire in full, but by submitting a request for information you are likely to gain access to useful business information you otherwise would not have access to. Authorities are obliged to consider the benefits of the request you have made and respond in a maximum period of 20 days. This can result in your receiving some, none, or all of the information you asked for.
Some of the most common information people seek out when making a Freedom of Information request are as follows:
- Copies of winning bids from the past
- The number of bidders competing for a tender
- The details of all bidders
- A ranking of these bidders
- Estimated renewal dates on contracts or tenders
- The value of winning tenders
Making a Freedom of Information (FOI) request can be a tactical and wise move when it comes to looking at successful bids or similar tendering contracts to one that you are working on or aspiring to gain in the near future. However, there are times when FOI requests should be avoided.
Firstly you should always look at alternative avenues first before putting in a formal FOI request, the information you need may already be available with a little bit of research and by making a formal request you could be inadvertently telling the authority in question that you did not exhaust these avenues first. This can make you appear lazy or inexperienced which is never good in the world of business.
One of the best places to find this information is through Contract Award Notices (CANs), these are when information is released about contracts that have been awarded in the past. They will contain information about buyer needs, who the awarded contractor was, the dates on the contract (expiry/renewal), and a plethora of other details. CANs are great places to start conducting research and avoids the need for an FOI request as a large part of the information you may need will be readily available here.
For tenders that you are bidding on, all the information you should need will be readily available for you so an FOI request won’t be necessary.
A great time to use an FOI request is when you have already exhausted these avenues. If there is no existing CAN published, which is common for low-value tenders, then it may be time to make an FOI request. If there is no CAN present then you may have to make an FOI request to gain access to the information that you need. A business will be aware of the lack of a CAN so in this circumstance you will not be perceived as lazy or inexperienced in making such a request, they will be aware that there was not a pre-existing avenue for you to utilise for the information you need and that an FOI request is all you could do. Further, if you are purely gathering information and do not have an interest in working with a public authority directly then an FOI request may be more beneficial to you as you can gain insight into the full scope of the information you need.
Sometimes CANs also do not provide a full story of the information that you require. CANs are written at the discretion of the publishing body so can often exclude information that is both non-confidential, and for whatever reason is not included in the CAN. If this is the case and this information is not available elsewhere then it may be the best decision to make an FOI request to gain access to this knowledge.
Freedom of Information is your right as a member of the public and you have full ability to make a request at any time you see fit. It is important to understand that you have complete freedom to make a request for a whole range of pieces of information, so by making a request you are not going to be denied a response. It is also however important to remember that a business does not have to release information if they deem it unbeneficial. Note that most businesses won’t make this judgement and will provide some if not all of the information you require.
Another thing to note is that an FOI request can be made to challenge a procurement decision if you suspect it did not fully comply with Public Contract Regulations (2015). In this situation an FOI request can be used to request the information needed to assess whether or not this is the case.
Freedom of Information is a useful tool to ensure the playing field in the world of tendering and procurement is fair and that your business can ensure it has access to the information it needs to have the best chance of winning a tender. It is a valuable tool to utilise to access winning bids from the past to mimic their successful tactics, review the feedback they received, and understand more accurately what a body is looking for in their future successful bidders.