News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner
News and Commentary from the Scottish Information Commissioner
January / February 2014
 
Commissioner's Commentary

Photo of Rosemary Agnew

Skilled and knowledgeable staff are essential to good FOI practice. Effective authorities have well-trained staff who receive relevant ongoing training and development.  They are connected to, and supported by, colleagues across the organisation. 

FOI doesn't only affect those with day-to-day responsibility for information governance: it impacts on all levels of the organisation from the chief executive to staff responsible for front-line delivery.  Anyone working for an authority may at some time find themselves in receipt of an FOI request.

The scope, depth and focus of training depends on the individual's specific roles and functions. Having knowledgeable staff will help to ensure that requests are identified and responses are prompt and accurate.  It will support the organisation in its engagement with service-users by helping to keep them informed and by responding to their concerns. 

It is a stated aim of mine that this organisation will support and facilitate FOI learning and promote good practice.  This was set out in the strategic framework  I published at the end of last year.  This framework explains how I plan to support FOI learning and development in Scotland, and the work to deliver it is now well underway.

You may be aware that in the past we delivered roadshows for civil society groups.  This format proved very popular and so we are building on the success of these roadshows  by extending the programme to additional areas of the country and delivering specific, targeted and free FOI learning to public authority staff.

The first of these roadshows took place in Aberdeen in early February 2014.  They provided practical advice on FOI and EIR request handling and included sessions on:

  • the role of FOI in managing risk
  • how to "appeal-proof" your FOI responses
  • responding to requests for commercial information and
  • resolving challenging requests.

It was very much a partnership event.  Aberdeen City Council provided the venue and support (my thanks to them) and the agenda was put together in consultation with the authorities in the area, meaning we were confident we were addressing the issues of greatest interest to them.  We were joined by speakers from the University of Dundee and Anderson Strathern LLP.  More than sixty members of staff from eleven different public authorities in the region participated, helping to ensure lively and challenging discussion and debate. Additionally, I met with chief executives and local MSPs to explore the role of FOI in managing risk and promoting good governance, and my colleagues delivered training on using FOI effectively to local media and voluntary groups.   

Our next planned roadshow is in Ayr on 27 March.  If you are interested in attending but this is not near to you, don't panic because we are scheduling more over the coming year.  If you'd like more information, or would like the roadshow to visit your area, let us know by emailing enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info.

We'd also be keen to hear your views on any other aspect of our learning and development strategy, which will soon include: new self-assessment tools to support authorities in reviewing, assessing and developing their own practice; a second practitioners' conference in partnership with the Centre for FOI; and a "knowledge hub" for practitioners, which will support FOI staff in the sharing and exchange of learning and resources.  

We look forward to hearing from you...

Rosemary Agnew's signature

Rosemary Agnew
Scottish Information Commissioner

 
Compliance, good practice and lessons learned

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Are you signed up to receive our Decisions Round-up?  The round-up provides a concise weekly summary of the decisions we published that week, along with brief details of the learning points for both public authorities and requesters.

Communication and FOI
Over last few weeks, a common theme in our round-ups has been the importance of communication to good FOI practice.  FOI and customer service go hand-in-hand, and authorities that place customer service principles at the heart of their request handling benefit from better relationships with requesters and often make efficiency gains. 

For authorities, this means focusing on providing information at the earliest possible opportunity, ideally through proactive publication which is itself customer-driven, and by taking advantage of opportunities to engage directly with requesters at appropriate time. This could mean, for example helping a requester to clarify their request where it is ambiguous; offering help to narrow or refine a request; explaining what might be provided within the upper cost limit; and using plain language to help explain decisions or responses. 

Requesters should also be aware that they can ask a public authority for help at any point in the FOI process.  Authorities have a duty to advise and assist people making information requests. So if you're not sure how to word your request to access the information that the authority holds, or if you don't understand an FOI response, remember that you can always ask.

Good communication and a customer-focussed approach will help to build trust in FOI relationships, and will in turn reduce the likelihood of problems, misunderstandings, reviews and appeals.

 

Take care with "business as usual" requests
"Business as usual" requests pose particular challenges to authorities.  This is because they could be dealt with as a request for information, but it is more efficient (and better customer service) to respond to these straightforward requests (where everything requested can be provided) as "business as usual" enquiries.  In doing so, they may not issue a formal FOI response, but will instead simply release the information with a brief covering response.   

There is a risk to responding to requests in this way and authorities should consider how to achieve the balance between mitigating the risk while still providing an efficient service.   

Although a response may not be issued as an FOI response, be aware that these requests still carry FOI rights.  If the requester is unhappy with the response, their correspondence could potentially qualify as a request for review, and should be dealt with accordingly, ensuring that the requester is made fully aware of their rights.  Authorities need to be alert to potential review requests, because if they are missed they could result in an appeal to the Commissioner and a finding of failure to respond.

 
Our work at a glance - 2013/14

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Date Enquiries 

 New
Applications

Total
number of
valid
cases
closed
 

Cases
closed
with a
decision
notice 

Settled /
withdrawn etc
during
investigation 

Apr/May

 333

96

70

39

31

Jun/Jul

318

108

76

56

20

Aug/Sep

346

88

74

59

15

Oct/Nov

412

99

77

56

21

Dec/Jan

241

88

61

44

17

Year
to Date

1,650

 479

358

254

104

       
 
Our news in brief

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FOI Practitioners' Conference, 21 May 2014
The Commissioner will be supporting a Practitioners' Conference, delivered in partnership with the University of Dundee and the Centre for FOI, on 21 May 2014.  The programme for the event is currently being developed, but it will focus on key areas of learning and development for Scotland's FOI and EIR practitioners.

Is there something you'd like to see on the agenda?  Let us know at enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info.


 

Lifespan of exemptions reduced
In the wake of changes introduced in last year's FOI Amendment Act, the Scottish Government passed an order which will reduce the lifespan of particular exemptions in the FOI Act.  From 1 April 2014, most of the exemptions which currently last for 30 years will have their lifespan reduced to 15 years.  This means that authorities will not be able to apply the relevant exemptions to information which is 15 years old or more. 

The reduction to 15 years will apply to all exemptions which currently last for 30 years, with the exception of section 36 (confidentiality, which will continue to last for 30 years) and section 41(a) (communications with Her Majesty, etc., where the lifespan of the exemption will be linked to the date of death of members of the Royal Family).

For more information, read our briefing on the FOI Amendment Act.

 


Resources for new authorities
1 April 2014 will see new authorities come under the scope of FOI and the EIRs.  These are trusts that provide culture and leisure services for local authorities.

To help bodies prepare, we organised a training event in January, and have also published a range of new resources on our website.  These include a standard presentation which sets out legal obligations and good practice, a checklist for bodies who are preparing for coverage, and a checklist for assessing an authority's procurement policies and contracts against their FOI obligations.

These resources may also be of value to other authorities seeking to assess and review their FOI practices.  You can find them at: www.itspublicknowledge.info/newauthority

 

 


 

Knowledge hub
We will be developing an FOI "knowledge hub" which aims to enable public authorities to share tools, resources, ideas and experience.  This is in direct response to feedback to our recent learning and development survey: respondents told us they wanted a way of sharing tools and best practice.   

If you'd like to participate in the development of the hub or have relevant experience of such initiatives do please get in touch.

 


 

Model publication scheme updated
We published the Model Publication Scheme for 2014 in January, which is available to be adopted by NHS bodies and leisure trusts from 1 June.  Updated guidance on adopting the model scheme is also available. The 2014 scheme and associated resources are available from www.itspublicknowledge.info/mps.

 


 

Our new look
You may have noticed that we have made changes to the look of this month's Inform.  We're in the process of introducing a new design consistent with that developed for the Commissioner's most recent Annual Report.  We hope you like the new look which aims to make information easier to access and read. 

The structure of our website will stay the same for now, but look out for the changes we plan to make in the year ahead.  These will make it easier for you to find and access the range of resources published across the site.  They will also be the start of adding new resources to support authorities in reviewing and improving their own FOI practice. A new section will eventually replace the "For Public Authorities" area of our site and will house all our existing guidance, along with new materials, including the self-assessment tools, knowledge hub and new guidance on responding to requests.  

We recognise that when trying to find information on a website, names and headings are all-important.  If you have any suggestions for what the new section should (or shouldn't) be called please send them to us as we want to make it as easy for everyone to use as we can.  

We'll also be asking for regular website users' views through an online survey and we'd welcome any volunteers willing to spare us a little time to test the new developments. 

 
Don't Forget...

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The "common questions" section of our website provides responses to the questions that we are asked most frequently by both requesters and authorities.  Have you got a question about FOI?  Check the site to see if we have already answered it for you.  And if you can't find the answer to your question, please let us know.

 
Other FOI News

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Scotland

  • The Scottish Government is in the process of reviewing its Section 60 Code of Practice, which provides statutory guidance to authorities on the fulfilment of their functions under FOI and the EIRs.The Commissioner will be consulting with the Government as part of its review, so if there are any areas where you think the Code could be improved, then please let us know.

 

UK

  • The Secretary for State for Transport has issued a veto in relation to the release of a Project Assessment Review report concerning the HS2 rail link.  The veto comes following a ruling by the Information Commissioner that the report should be dislcosed.  This case is particularly unusual as the veto was used before the UK Information Rights Tribunal, which hears appeals under the Westminster FOI Act, had examined the case.
  • In another recent case, the Information Rights Tribunal has asked the Court of Justice for the European Union (CJEU) for a preliminary ruling on local authorities charging under the (UK) Environmental Information Regulations for property search information.  The Tribunal's reference seeks guidance from the CJEU on what costs may be considered reasonable under the UK EIRs. Read the Tribunal's reference.
  • The Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) has published a new report highlighting FOI disclosures that have been made under the Westminster FOI Act.  The CFOI suggests that many of the examples illustrate how FOI can reduce costs for authorities by revealing and deterring unjustified spending.  The CFOI has also recently relaunched its website at www.cfoi.org.uk.

 

World

  • Article 19 and the Global Forum for Media Development have issued a joint statement calling on the United Nations to promote access to information and media freedom from 2015.
  • The website www.freedominfo.org has undertaken a sample of international practices in relation to the disclosure of FOI request letters.  Its subsequent report highlights differing practice in relation to the disclosure of request details.
  • On 11 December last year the Ivory Coast became the 98th country to introduce FOI legislation.

 

 

 
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

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