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Imperfect Information imageResearch reveals that voluntary sector still has concerns about FOI use

News release: 6 July 2012

Research published today in association with the University of Strathclyde reveals that Scotland's voluntary sector remains cautious about using freedom of information (FOI) rights to access information, amid continuing concerns that FOI use may harm funding or working relationships with public authorities. The research report, entitled "Imperfect Information: Experiences and Perceptions of the use of Freedom of Information in the Scottish Voluntary Sector", examines the reasons for the findings in an earlier study in 2010, which found that 49% of voluntary sector organisations would be discouraged from requesting information for this reason.

The new research, which involved in-depth interviews with 50 voluntary sector staff members from across Scotland, also found that the closer an organisation's relationship with a public authority, the less likely it will be to make use of the FOI "right to information". The researchers discovered that FOI-use was more likely amongst smaller organisations with a more independent status, and "grassroots" campaigners.

Commenting on the research findings, Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said:

"FOI was introduced to make Scotland's public authorities more open and more accountable to the communities they serve. We have seen many examples of the information released to voluntary organisations through FOI being used to inform and support public authorities in the delivery of better services.

"This study raises some serious concerns. Any perception that an FOI request can result in negative consequences will deter people from using their right to access information - information which is often critical to asserting other rights.

"I think that many public authorities will be surprised by these findings. They will not want to be viewed as treating FOI requests from voluntary organisations as a challenge or a threat. Public authorities need to engage with voluntary organisations to understand and address any fears."

The research revealed evidence that FOI may be strengthening "informal" communication routes between public authorities and the voluntary sector, with public authorities becoming increasingly likely to release information informally, possibly due to an awareness with authorities of the FOI "back-stop".

There was also evidence of voluntary organisations using third parties - such as MSPs or journalists - to submit requests, and of coalition groups using FOI on behalf of individual organisations, shielding those organisations from any of the perceived negative consequences that may result from FOI-use.

Dr Will Dinan, one of the authors of the report, said:

"When FOI was introduced in Scotland it was widely assumed that voluntary organisations would be a key constituency who would use the legislation in their campaigning and advocacy work. It appears there is real reluctance to use FOI, with some voluntary groups concerned about harming working relationship and funding. Such sensitivities are only likely to increase with public spending cutbacks. In this context it is very important that public authorities respect the rights of those using FOI to promote accountability."

The publication of the research is accompanied by the launch of new online resources by the Scottish Information Commissioner, which provide advice and support for voluntary organisations on using FOI effectively.

Launching the website, Rosemary Agnew added:

"We know from the research findings that members of the voluntary sector can sometimes be concerned about when and how to use FOI. Our new web pages aim to support voluntary organisations in making that decision, providing a range of useful information and advice. This includes commonly asked questions, hints and tips on making effective requests, details of FOI workshops, and video case studies of voluntary sector requesters talking about their own personal experiences using their FOI rights.

"We hope that information and examples available on the website will help requesters to better understand how FOI can benefit them."

The website can be accessed at:www.itspublicknowledge.info/voluntarysector.

Ends

For further information contact the Commissioner's Media Team on 01334 464610, out of hours on 07976 511752, or email media@itspublicknowledge.info

Notes to Editors:

About the Research:

The research report, "Imperfect Information: Experiences and Perceptions of the use of Freedom of Information in the Scottish Voluntary Sector", was carried out by Dr Will Dinan, Kate Spence and Hannah Hutchison of the University of Strathclyde.

The report details the findings of 50 in-depth interviews with voluntary sector staff from across Scotland, and a small number of interviews with public authority officials and journalists.

Amongst the findings of the report:

  • Concerns remain around the impact of FOI use on funding and working relationships with public authorities. The closer their relationship with a public authority, the less likely a voluntary organisation will be to use FOI.
  • Larger organisations with closer ties with authorities tend to use established and informal communication routes to access information, with FOI being seen as a more "aggressive" or "confrontational" approach.
  • FOI-use is more likely amongst smaller, more "independent" organisations, with less access to established communication networks.
  • FOI can often be used as a "last resort" - with organisations attempting to access information informally in the first instance, and only using FOI if they are unsuccessful.
  • FOI may be strengthening informal communication routes - there is a perception that information is increasingly likely to be released informally, perhaps due to public authority awareness of the FOI '"back-stop" open to requesters.
  • FOI is sometimes used as a "signalling mechanism" by organisations, demonstrating that they are serious about a particular issue.
  • There is a perception amongst some FOI users that public authorities can sometimes adopt strategies to frustrate the FOI process. This might include e.g. deliberately delaying responses, inappropriately withholding information, interpreting requests too narrowly, or exploiting ambiguities in request wording to avoid disclosure.
  • The more organisations know about FOI, the more likely they are to make use of it.
  • Guidance and training encourages use of FOI.

The full research report is available to download from www.itspublicknowledge.info/voluntarysector. Previous research outputs from the University of Strathclyde's study are also available.

About the Scottish Information Commissioner

The Scottish Information Commissioner is responsible for enforcing and promoting the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs) and the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations 2009. FOI and the EIRs came into force on 1 January 2005, giving anyone, anywhere in the world, important rights to access the information held by more than 10,000 public authorities in Scotland.

In summary, the Scottish Information Commissioner:

  • investigates appeals made to her when people are dissatisfied with how a public authority dealt with a request for information
  • issues legally enforceable decisions in relation to these appeals
  • promotes good practice amongst public authorities and
  • provides the public and public authorities with information about their rights and obligations under FOI laws.

The current Scottish Information Commissioner is Rosemary Agnew. Rosemary took up office on 1 May 2012, for a fixed period of six years.

About the new resources

The Scottish Information Commissioner has launched a new website to assist voluntary sector organisations when using, or thinking about using, their FOI rights.

The website, which is available at www.itspublicknowledge.info/voluntarysector, features:

  • Detailed guidance on how to make an FOI request
  • Brief video and audio case studies featuring a range of requesters talking about their FOI experiences. These include representatives of a number of voluntary organisations, including the C-Diff Justice Group, the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland, the Scottish Rural Schools Network, community group the A82 Partnership, and Inclusion Scotland
  • A short animated guide to FOI rights
  • Frequently asked questions from the voluntary sector
  • FOI hints and tips
  • A handy "response calculator" which allows you to input dates to find out when you should receive a response to your FOI request.
  • Details of forthcoming FOI workshops, including scheduled workshop in Edinburgh (5th November).

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