News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner

News and commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner
November 2014

 
Commissioner's Commentary
Photo of Rosemary Agnew

Good practice makes perfect?

Regular readers and those of you who have met and spoken to me at events know that I am committed to supporting public authorities to work effectively with the FOI regime. My aim is to help requesters by helping authorities to get their FOI responses "right first time". This approach benefits authorities and requesters: requesters by ensuring that information is disclosed at the earliest opportunity, and authorities by reducing the resource burden of FOI reviews and appeals.

Over the last year we have worked hard to develop new approaches to support this goal.

Regional Roadshows

Not least, this year has seen us pilot a series of Regional Roadshows, delivering FOI training and guidance to public authorities, community and media groups across Scotland.

These events extend FOI learning opportunities and encourage the sharing of good practice. They are also a great way for local people to share their FOI issues with us.

 Since January 2014, we have delivered roadshows in Aberdeen, Ayr, Stornoway and Stirling, with my staff and invited guests presenting sessions on a wide range of topics, including "appeal-proofing FOI", "Resolving challenging requests", "FOI and personal data" and "Responding to environmental information requests".

The actual programme on the day is developed with the authorities themselves. In this way we can cover issues that are of particular interest to those attending.

Stirling Roadshow 

Stirling Roadshow
14 November 2014

 All of these events were well received, with 100% of participants at our most recent roadshows rating the events as "good" or "excellent". And over 90% of public authority delegates said that they were both better equipped and more confident in dealing with requests as a result of the event.

Rosemary in Stornoway 3

Stornoway Roadshow
3 October 2014

An essential component of good FOI practice is, of course, a strong commitment to openness and transparency at a senior level. Strong leadership and regular monitoring of FOI performance support the effective delivery of FOI throughout an organisation. I value the opportunity that our roadshows provide to meet personally with Chief Executives, senior managers and local MSPs, exploring the role that responsiveness through effective FOI practice can play in supporting good governance and managing risk.

  Building on the achievements of the year, we plan to continue our roadshow programme into 2015/16 and beyond. So if we haven't yet visited your area, we hope to be able to do so soon. If you're interested in hosting a roadshow in your area, don't wait for us to contact you! We'd be pleased to hear from you at enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info.

 Self-assessment toolkit

 Not everyone can attend a roadshow of course, and nor are roadshows the only route through which we can support authorities to improve the accuracy and efficiency of their FOI response. With this in mind, last month we launched the first in a new series of "self-assessment" resources, which can be used by authorities to identify good practice and drive improvements in FOI practice in areas you feel are not up to the high standards you think they should be.

Our toolkit resources are being developed in consultation with FOI practitioners from public authorities, and further modules will be introduced in coming weeks and months. We plan to develop eleven modules over the next 18 months, focussing on such areas as Searching for, locating and retrieving information (due December 2014), and Providing advice and assistance (due by March 2015).

The first module of this new toolkit, Responding on time, is now available. I would urge you to spend some time exploring the toolkit. Authorities, think about how it could help improve FOI performance. Requesters, the sorts of questions it poses will give you an indication of the standards we consider it reasonable for authorities to work to. You can access it at www.itspublicknowledge.info/toolkits.

We'd be very keen to hear about experiences of using it; including practices and techniques identified which could help colleagues across Scotland's FOI community. We'd also welcome constructive feedback on how the toolkit could be improved, or suggestions for further modules which could be developed.

Application form

We don't only work with authorities: we are also mindful of how we can help requesters and in so doing make FOI more efficient. It is in this context that we launched, just last week, an electronic application form for requesters to use. The main aim behind it is to help requesters make better appeals by guiding them through what they need to tell and send to us, which in turn we hope will result in fewer invalid appeals. Helping requesters frame their appeals should also help us target our investigations which should also benefit public authorities over time.

Having the form also presents an opportunity for us to engage differently with requesters and give early guidance about making information requests, particularly to those who appeal too early. We hope over time to move towards a completely on-line form (but that depends on available resources).

Public bodies can help us by referring to the form in their responses to requesters and including the link with our contact details. The Application Form is available here.

And remember, you can contact us about the toolkit, the roadshows, or any other issue, at enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info

Rosemary Agnew
Scottish Information Commissioner

 
Compliance, good practice and lessons learned

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Our Decisions Round-up provides a weekly summary of the decisions published by the Commissioner that week, along with details of the key learning points for requesters or authorities from those decisions. You can sign up to receive the round-up at www.itspublicknowledge.info/signup.

Communication is key

Recent editions of the round-up have continued to highlight the crucial role that good communication plays in effective FOI. Our investigations often identify circumstances where an appeal may have been prevented if the communication between the authority and the requester had been more constructive.

For authorities, good FOI communications are synonymous with good customer service. If you take a customer service approach to your FOI communications, e.g. seeking ways to explain your actions and decisions clearly and succinctly, in a style and tone that is accessible and appropriate, you may find that problems can be addressed long before the point of appeal (or even review). And remember, there will also be cases where it will be appropriate to pick up the phone and have a conversation with a requester, to help you understand better what they are seeking and to clarify the request.

We believe that better communications could help authorities to manage requests more smoothly as highlighted in Decision 215/2014, 209/2014 and 219/2014.

These principles of good communication will also help requesters. When requesting information, take some time to ensure that you explain clearly what you're looking for, as this is likely to help your request be answered quickly and accurately. Also, think about picking up the phone to talk to someone at the authority before making your request. This may help you word your request in such a way that you are more likely to get what you need because the authority can understand it . Our tips for requests page has more information at www.itspublicknowledge.info/tipsforrequesters.

Other noteworthy decisions

Other decisions issued in recent weeks which may be of interest include Decision 218/2014, which considered the importance of ensuring that legal advice remains confidential, and Decision 223/2014, which found that an authority had made appropriate use of the FOI Act's "neither confirm nor deny" provision.

 
Our work at a glance
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Month 

Enquiries

New
Applications

Total
number of
valid cases
closed

Cases closed
with a decision
notice

Settled /
withdrawn during
investigation

 Apr

143

49

23

16

7

 May

204

40

32

24

8

Jun

140

42

37

26

11

Jul

125

49

37

28

9

Aug

163

35

29

18

11

Sep

133

36

34

23

11

Oct

140

41

24

19

5

 Year to
Date

 1,048

292

216

154

62

 

The number of applications so far this year is lower than last year. We have received 292 compared to 342 by this time last year. This follows the quietest August and September since 2010, but may simply be a reflection of the other issues that have occupied our collective attention in recent months...

Decisions continue to keep pace with the work coming in, and we are achieving our aims of keeping our average age of open and closed cases below 18 weeks. Indeed, 81% of our current cases were decided in four months or under (our target is 75%).

Remember we publish a 'dashboard' of key statistical information quarterly. You can see the latest 'dashboard' here.

Our staff work hard to meet our challenging targets. But don't forget, if you're involved in an appeal you can do your bit too. Authorities can work with us to help resolve applications, providing prompt responses to our enquiries and working with our staff to consider again whether the request was dealt with appropriately.

For requesters, try and be as clear as you can about why you were dissatisfied with the way the authority handled your original request and review. Doing so will help to focus our investigation on the particular matters that concern you.

And remember, if you have any questions about any aspect of an appeal, then please just let us know.

 

 
Our news in brief
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10 years on...are the right bodies covered?

Following our recently published Special Report on the extent of Failures to Respond to FOI requests by Scottish public authorities, we are currently preparing a second Special Report, this time exploring the scope of FOI.

This report, which will be laid to coincide with the 10th Anniversary of FOI in Scotland, will explore how the designation provisions in the FOI Act are being used, and whether this has resulted in the 'right' organisations being made subject to FOI, particularly under section 5 of the Act.

We're interested in your views and experience. For example, do you have any experience of requesters asking you for information that you don't hold, but which is held by an organisation not covered by the legislation? Or perhaps you're a requester, who has been unable to access important information because a body delivering a public service falls outside the scope of FOI?

Whatever your experience, we'd be keen to hear from you about the types of organisation (or public functions) that you think should be covered. Contact us by emailing lcurrie@itspublicknowledge.info, or calling 01334 464610. Our research phase will be ending soon, so let us know as soon as you can!

 


 

10th Anniversary Holyrood Conference

Less than one month to go now until the 2014 Holyrood FOI Conference, which will take place at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh on 11 December.

The Conference, which will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of FOI and explore the challenges of the next ten years, will feature contributions from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Lord Jim Wallace of Tankerness, Commissioner Rosemary Agnew and UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham.

Breakout workshops will also provide a practical introduction to the Commissioner's new self-assessment toolkit, and explore what you need to know about the new revisions to the Scottish Government's section 60 code of practice.

For more information, visit http://foi.holyrood.com.

 


 

Publication Scheme Renewals

Scottish public authorities listed under Part 7 of Schedule 1 to the FOI Act ("Other" public bodies) and publicly-owned companies are due to renew their publication schemes by 31 May 2015.

We are currently revising and updating the Model Publication Scheme for adoption during 2015, and will be writing at the end of this month to affected bodies to notify them of the renewal, and recommend that they adopt the model scheme.

 

 

Centre for FOI European Conference

Delegates from across Scotland joined with European Commissioners and Ombudsman in Edinburgh on 4 November, to participate in a conference exploring on access to information laws which derive from European legislation.

Throughout the day speakers and delegates explored the challenges in interpreting and implementing the Environmental Information Regulations and the revised Re-use of Public Sector Information Directive. Speakers included Minister for Parliamentary Business Joe Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Wates, former Secretary to the Aarhus Convention, and the National Archives' Carol Tullo. Delegates also heard first hand from Commissioner's and Ombudsmen from across the EU and beyond, sharing the insights and challenges arising from their own implementation of the laws.

It was a lively and informative day.The conference was followed by a meeting of European Commissioners and Ombudsmen on 5 November, which explored the establishment a network for European Information Commissioners.

 
Don't forget...
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You will no doubt be aware that we published our 2013/14 Annual Report at the end of September. But did you also know that, alongside the publication of our Annual Report, we also publish a detailed breakdown of all of the appeals received by the Commissioner for each authority, for every year since 2005?

This data can be viewed by region or by public authority sector, and contains details of the outcomes of all of our appeals.

You can download our Appeal Statistics - by Region and Sector at: www.itspublicknowledge.info/AnnualReport201314.

 
Contact us
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The Commissioner's staff are pleased to provide information, support and advice on any issue relating to freedom of information. We also welcome your feedback, including about our website and Inform newsletter. Contact us at:

Scottish Information Commissioner, Kinburn Castle, Doubledykes Rd, St Andrews, KY16 9DS

Website: www.itspublicknowledge.info

Telephone: 01334 464610

Email: enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info

Fax: 01334 464611

You can unsubscribe from Inform by emailing us on the above address, typing "Unsubscribe from Inform" in the subject box.

 
 
 
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