Looking to the future - the Commissioner's view
Looking to the future we face challenges and opportunities
We can expect the number of applications we receive to increase. This has certainly been the pattern internationally where, as FOI has settled in, the public have made use of their FOI rights in increasing numbers. In Scotland, applications may also rise as a result of the prospective designation of a sizeable number of new bodies such as Glasgow Housing Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, local authority leisure and recreation trusts, etc.
It might also be the case that the effect of the recession on public authority spending means that more requests for information will be generated by people concerned about decisions affecting jobs, services, funding, grants etc. A proportion of such requests will end up as applications to me. My office will also not be immune from the effects of spending constraints and I shall issue a revised strategic and financial plan in 2010. The challenge will be to face up to an expected increased case load with constrained staff resources.
Two approaches will ease the pressure and progress of freedom of information in Scotland. The first is for authorities to adopt smart compliance policies and systems. The assessments my staff are carrying out out are clearly identifying examples of good practice which serve as an example to other authorities.
Smart compliance measures will include the provision of core training to frontline staff so that they recognise and respond appropriately to requests, the development of systems to log requests to ensure that timescales for compliance are respected, the use of template letters to ensure applicants are appropriately informed of their rights and the establishment of review panels which independently consider whether refusals to disclose information in the first instance are justified. Such actions will significantly reduce the number of appeals which result from technical failings in case management.
Secondly, and more importantly, we should be moving from dutiful compliance to a presumption in favour of disclosure. Although this is what Scotland's FOI Act is founded upon, it would be easier in practice if authorities recorded information in the expectation that it may be released.
Put simply, too often officials seem to assume that internal communications and exchanges with peers will not be exposed to public scrutiny – and express themselves accordingly. Yet authorities should be aware by now that FOI does result in the disclosure of information contained in internal e-mails, advice to Ministers, correspondence with service providers and contractors, and so on. Clearly some information is justified in being withheld, but too often reluctance to disclose arises not because of what the information contains, but instead because of the manner in which it has been written.
A management approach which recognises and adopts the FOI Act's presumption in favour of disclosure should focus on two basic elements. Firstly, is there really any problem with releasing the requested information? If not, then there is no need to spend time considering whether exemptions might be applied. Secondly, can we make sure that problems are minimised by instilling or reinforcing a professional standard of communication, including – and perhaps especially – for internal emails? This would better communicate the deliberative process and reduce the inhibition against disclosure. In the face of both an anticipated rise in FOI request volumes and constrained resources, this approach will be simple good practice to ensure that the time spent by officials considering the appropriateness of release is minimised wherever possible.
Finally we should celebrate 5 years of FOI in Scotland. We have worked hard to deserve our reputation for having a progressive freedom of information regime.
Scottish Information Commissioner