News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner

News and commentary from the Scottish Information Commisisoner

September/October 2013

 
Commissioner's commentary
Photo of Rosemary Agnew

The publication of an Annual Report provides a great opportunity for reflection and learning. The big message from me this year is that there are still too many authorities who are simply not responding to requests for information. Indeed 27% of appeals during 2012/13 were as a result of an authority failing to respond to a request (we refer to these as "technical" cases). The consequences of failure to respond for authorities and requesters can be very damaging. Where an authority does not respond to requests, or responds to requests late, it denies people their rights where it prevents or delays them getting the information they have asked for. Failure to respond doesn't make the request go away.  If it is appealed to us, there will be avoidable extra work and cost involved in co-operating with the investigation. And yet these failures are easily avoidable.

So what do we do about it? We want to understand the reasons behind the issue, and put the right measures in place to help authorities overcome it. What we don't want to do is play a "blame game" as this is not helpful to anyone. To this end, we will publish a special report into technical failures early in 2014. The report will set out why compliance with statutory timescales is so important by exploring the impact of poor practice in this area on authorities and requesters.

The good news is that we know from experience that it is possible for authorities to make substantial improvements in their compliance with statutory timescales, just by making some changes to their practice. We will capture and share this learning to help all authorities get it right. Later in this newsletter we've set out some examples to get you thinking.

Helping authorities get better at responding to requests is just one of the ways in which we plan to work constructively to help them comply with their legal obligations and embrace good practice. I certainly prefer this approach to resorting to my enforcement powers. I see enforcement very much as a backstop for situations when other approaches haven't worked.

While I won't go to enforcement unless absolutely necessary, I am prepared to use the full force of my powers to get improvements if that's what it takes. Ultimately, it's part of my job to make sure FOI runs as well as it can. I do want to do this as fairly as possible and it's only reasonable that authorities are clear about my enforcement powers and the circumstances under which I am likely to use them. Our new Enforcement Policy provides this clarity and should help authorities understand my approach to these powers. .

Rosemary Agnew's signature

 

Rosemary Agnew

Scottish Information Commissioner

 

 

First national FOI statistics dataset published

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The Commissioner (with the help of authorities) published the first dataset of FOI and EIR statistics on 15 October 2013. 99% of public authorities provided their data, creating a comprehensive overview of FOI requests in Scotland between April and June 2013. The dataset reveals that over 15,000 FOI and EIR requests were recorded by authorities during the period. While variations between authorities in how the data is recorded mean it's not advisable to make comparisons yet, this first release is an exciting first step. The next step will be to work with authorities towards more robust and comprehensive data, resulting in a database which is a valuable national resource, available to all. For example, based on what we have learned about his first dataset, we have asked all authorities to provide us data on the actual activity (requests and responses) in the quarter - which is another step towards a more consistent dataset.

Over time, we hope that the growing dataset will help inform discussion on a range of FOI issues. You can download the dataset from the online data collection system at https://stats.itspublicknowledge.info

 
At a glance - October 2012 to September 2013
Case statistics for October 2012 to September 2013
 
Compliance, good practice and lessons learned
Filing cabinet with papers flying out
In the course of the Commissioner's visits to authorities over the past few years, compliance with statutory timescales has been a common issue. The consequences, as discussed earlier in this edition of Inform, can be damaging. However, authorities can - and have - turned their performance around. It often takes just a few simple changes to practice delivering significant results:
  2010  2013 
 NHS Fife

 60%

94% 

 South Ayrshire Council

 72%

 96%

 2011  2013
 Aberdeen City Council

 72%

 88%

 So what made the difference? These authorities focused on the following areas which contributed to improved performance:

  • Senior management buy-in led to recognition of the role of FOI in good governance.
  • Better definition and communication of roles and responsibilities across teams and departments.
  • Training to ensure all staff can identify requests and know where to pass them to.
  • Robust tracking systems to pick up issues in plenty of time.
  • Better resilience arrangements to avoid bottlenecks when key staff are not available.
  • Improved performance monitoring and reporting at senior level.
  • Clear procedures for escalating issues to senior managers.

Decisions Round-up

A key learning point emerging from decisions over the past few months is the need to be careful about handling responses and drafting responses to requesters. Authorities should ensure they respond to what they are actually asked and take care not to misinterpret requests. It's also important to make sure that all parts of a request are responded to, and that the response meets all the statutory requirements. This means ensuring that any decisions are properly explained and the requester's rights to review and appeal are set out. Even if an authority has good grounds for refusing information, if they don't communicate this to the requester, this can lead to dissatisfaction, and, possibly, an avoidable appeal to us. For more, see:

 
Commissioner's news in brief
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Study finds FOI awareness remains high but confidence is dipping

A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 78% of respondents had heard of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, which compares favourably with highest recorded level of public awareness, at 80%, in a similar poll in 2011. However, a lower share had "definitely" heard of the Act, compared to the 2011 poll.

This time we also explored public perception of authorities' response times:

  • 10% of respondents were very confident that they would get a FOI response within 20 days
  • 12% were not confident at all.

This suggests we still have a job to do to ensure that the public see FOI as a right that works effectively in practice. However, the public see FOI as an important way of holding public authorities to account (91% agreed with this) and there is continued strong support for FOI to be extended to more bodies. View the results of the public awareness research here

 


Holyrood FOI Conference date and programme announced

A date for your dairy - Holyrood's 11th Annual FOI Conference will take place on Thursday 5 December 2013, at Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. Entitled "Freedom of Information: Growing an informed Scotland", the CPF certified conference will hear from Cabinet Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, as well as other keynote speakers Professor Colin Reid from University of Dundee, and NHS Education for Scotland's Frank Rankin. Speakers will explore how FOI links with upcoming legislation, how it is evolving in Scotland, and will also examine whether the Environmental Information Regulations are as well-known as they should be. As usual, the plenary sessions will be complemented with practical workshops looking at issues facing practitioners. Find out more and book your space at http://foi2013.holyrood.com/


SIC attends AAHB adverse event workshop

In September we attended a workshop hosted by NHS Ayrshire and Arran looking at our decision last year ordering the authority to release redacted versions of Significant Adverse Events Reports (SAERs). The workshop, attended by several other Scottish Health Boards, explored what steps could be taken to allow SAERs to be shared without breaching confidentiality. It followed Health Improvement Scotland's (HIS) report on how significant adverse events were carried out in Ayrshire and Arran, which contained a number of recommendations - not just for Ayrshire and Arran, but for all other NHS Boards in Scotland. HIS are also developing a national approach to adverse event reviews to allow information to be shared freely within and across NHS Scotland. This is a positive example of how authorities can see a FOI decision as the catalyst for improvements in practice, which will have real benefits for end users.

 
Other FOI news
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Contact Us
Rosemary Agnew and her team 2012

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

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