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Where you can stick your FOI reference numbers (updated 19 July)

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Best practice

The information in this blogpost may now be out of date. See the current GOV.UK content and publishing guidance.

I'll tell you where you can stick your FOI reference numbers. It's right here, in this metadata field called "Unique reference":

Stick it here, why don't you?
Unique reference field in the admin interface


It's definitely not here, in the page title:

FOI number in page title


Nor here, in the attachment title:

FOI number in attachment title


Nor here, in the summary text:

FOI number in summary.


The unique reference field is designed to be used for your organisation's internal document reference numbers. Don't be scared of it, please use it.

If you don't have a numbering system, for FOIs or any other kind of publication, then we've previously suggested one that you might care to adopt.

We are imminently going to be adding the data from these fields into the search index, so users can search for publications by the content of this field (or the other bibliographic fields, like the ISBN).

More generally, if you don't know what the convention is for something like this, please don't guess. Ask.

You can ask the GOV.UK team anything like this using the support form. It would be better still if you were to compare notes with other departments and come to us with a collective view of what you think would be a good, consistent way of doing things.

Update 19 July: we have now corrected the style guide to reflect this instruction, after a few of you pointed out  a contradiction between the style guide and this post. Also to clarify that we do not expect you to retrospectively apply this to existing FOI releases - please just use the reference field from now on. Thanks all.

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  1. Comment by John Ploughman posted on

    Hi Neil

    We recently asked about this very thing (probably a month ago) - and we were told to put them at the end of the page title. This is why you'll see them popping up on DfT, DVLA and DSA FOIs.

    What's your take on changing any that have been published in this format? Can they be left or do they need updating?

  2. Comment by Keith Prust posted on


    The GOV.UK style guide about publication titles states:

    For FOI publications, use the reference number and acronyms: ‘Expenditure for team off-site away days (12/1786)’

    Sometimes we get a number of FoI requests on the same subject, but we don't necessarily publish them at the same time. Adding the reference number to the title can help to differentiate them.

    • Replies to Keith Prust>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Thanks both - I must admit I wasn't aware of that addition to the style guide, my bad.

      It was agreed to add that temporarily because search did not index the reference fields. Now that we are imminently fixing that, we have amended the style guide to remove that instruction.

      You should use the unique reference field from now on, as per this blog post.

      We do not expect you to retrospectively change existing content. Just use the reference field from now on.


      • Replies to Neil Williams>

        Comment by John Ploughman posted on

        Thanks Neil.

        If we're publishing them as an HTML publication, how would you like to play it?

        Until the story is delivered to make HTML publications act like attachments, I don't think there's any way to assign a document reference number to them.

  3. Comment by Neil posted on

    Tbh I'd say omit the reference number completely if using html pubs (which are still in beta phase compared to the other formats we have) until we have a field you can put it in. It's only metadata. Putting it into the title, body or summary feels very wrong to me.

  4. Comment by Sheurie Warner posted on


    In MOD we often release a bundle of documents as part of a release (published together on a publication page) under a single reference number. If we use the new number system each PDF file in the release would carry the same 'unique' reference number. This might be confusing for users. We would like to put in the reference number in the Detail section only.

  5. Comment by Neil posted on


    Please don't do that. Use the reference number field. It is fine to repeat the same number across multiple files if that is how you have numbered them internally. It doesn't display the word "unique" on the frontend, so there's no reason not to do this.

    (Although I suggest it would be better to change your internal processes to have a separate number for each file).

    You could also consider uploading the documents as a Zip file on a single publication page, so there is only one attachment on the page and it has the one reference number.

  6. Comment by Laura posted on

    Hi Neil, the Home Office circulars all have ref numbers, we don't want to put these numbers in the titles and would like to use the unique reference field but it seems you can only use the unique reference field if you are actually adding an attachment. I am not adding attachments, the circulars have been reproduced within the body text. So how do I take the ref out of the title and put it somewhere so that it can be used in search if I can't use the unique ref field ? Any ideas ? Just put it into the summary field instead ? Laura HO web team

    • Replies to Laura>

      Comment by Neil Williams posted on

      Hi Laura

      So there are a couple of things to say here.

      1. Please don't put the body of a publication into the "body" field (which renders on the site as the "publication detail"). The purpose of this field is to explain what the publication is about, it should never contain the meat of the document itself. You can use the HTML publication field for that.

      We are imminently going to make it invalid to publish a publication which has neither an attached file nor an HTML publication, in order to prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening. Please make sure the whole team there understands that this is not how the format should be used.

      2. We will shortly also be making HTML publications behave more like attachments, which will include the ability to specify reference numbers for them. Until then, you're right: you can only currently add these reference numbers for publication attachments. While you wait for these changes to arrive please just add the reference numbers into the body (publication detail) field.


  7. Comment by Laura posted on

    Thank you, Laura

  8. Comment by John Joseph posted on

    When are you going to to enable the search by unique reference - this was promised and never delivered. Sorting through FOI's are a nightmare without this function enabled.

  9. Comment by Neil Williams posted on

    That's still our intention. We have a long list of feature requests, but it will get done.

    • Replies to Neil Williams>

      Comment by John Joseph posted on

      I can see this is now sorted - many thanks for resolving. It certainly makes managing a large number of publications a lot easier