Too often we tend to assume that if we can write down a question – in a request for information – then business can write down the answer just as simply.

(This is the second article in what I hope will be a series covering “Mistakes the Other Side Make”. For an introduction to the series see here. It says a lot about the European Commission that they allow me to publish articles that admit that not everything is perfect about how we work.)

I’m guilty of this assumption. A few years ago I wrote a request for information to a company asking for a map of their entire corporate structure, together with background information on each company. The lawyer receiving the request turned – so I now imagine – white with horror and then red with anger. I had, so she explained at high – but justified – volume, asked for more information than would be covered in a due diligence exercise. My request was, according to her, wholly disproportionate. She was likely right.

When I explained what I was trying to unearth – what actual or potential overlaps there were between this particular undertaking’s corporate group, and another undertaking involved in the same joint venture – the conversation turned to how this legitimate question could be answered more briefly and effectively. My mistake was having this conversation after sending the request for information rather than before.

DG Competition has gotten better.

The move to a sectoral organisation in the mid 2000s helped capture more sectoral knowledge helping units formulate their requests for information more accurately. The Chief Economist Team also routinely sit down with the other side to discuss what information is needed and how it can be provided, before finalising a request for information.

But this is still an area where we can improve.

However, there are real problems getting in the way of improvement:

– the revolving door between public and private sector  revolves rather slowly in the EU. DG Competition does not have theprivate sector experience which characterises – for example – the US Department of Justice;

– given an inevitable lack of detailed knowledge of the company under investigation, it is easy to ask for information in a form not easily mappable onto business systems;

– we may easily formulate our queries poorly and end up asking for too much information.

All of these argue in favour of frequent discussion of potentially complex requests for information before the requests are sent. This happens increasingly often, but there’s an inevitable gap between best practice and… less than best practice.  We could improve.

[Update on 5 February 2014, to change the title from “Limited business knowledge” to “Asking the right questions” which better sums up the post. With credit to Peter Willis for suggesting the title could be better.]