Commentary

2010 Review

2010 saw the issuing of my 1000th decision; the first formal Practice Recommendation being issued to an authority; and our promotion of the 5th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act won national awards.

New milestones...

In July 2010 a milestone was reached when I issued my 1000th decision, a figure which totalled 1,188 by the end of the year. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the number of cases which required to be closed with a formal decision last year rose to nearly 250, a 50% increase on the previous year, even though the number of applications made to me have not risen.

Given the nature of these contested cases, increasingly the outcome of my decisions neither wholly favours the applicant or the authority but instead, in 41% of cases in 2010, I partially found in favour of both. It is important not to overlook the fact that in 12% of the cases we investigated, a formal determination was not required as my staff negotiated a settlement, often with the authority agreeing to release some or all of the information and, in return, the applicant withdrawing their appeal.

New challenges...

Whilst the freedom of information regime in Scotland is clearly maturing, the interpretation of the law continues to be tested. I was concerned at the beginning of 2010 that the Scottish Government and a small number of other authorities were taking a highly restrictive view as to what constituted a valid request for information, with many requests to those authorities being refused simply because the requester had asked for a document or a copy of correspondence. However, in the course of the year my decisions on this issue have not been challenged and, for the most part, applicants are not now being refused information on this basis.

A number of my decisions dealt with prominent matters including: the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi; the Edinburgh tram scheme; and exchanges between the First Minister and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

My role as Commissioner is also to promote good practice by authorities and to increase awareness amongst the public of their right to information, and there were notable developments in both areas.

Improving practice...

I established a small team of staff to carry out assessments of public authorities' compliance with FOI e.g. making sure that authorities appropriately recognise requests; that they respond on time; that they charge fees appropriately; and that they have sound procedures for finding the information that is requested. In 2010 all 14 authorities selected for assessment cooperated fully and have implemented an agreed voluntary action plan to improve practice. In one case I decided to issue a formal Practice Recommendation and the authority in that case has since gone on to make significant improvements.

Raising awareness...

So far as public awareness is concerned we have a very limited budget, but we have made good use of it. Our promotion of the right to know, to mark the 5th anniversary of Freedom of Information in Scotland, was covered extensively on TV and radio news programmes, and national and local newspapers, whilst video clips ran on the The Scotsman website. The campaign won Gold in the Public Sector category in the Chartered Institute of Public Relations annual 'PRide' Awards and took Silver in the overall Best Use of Media Relations category.

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