In their hands
Given the nature of the Commissioner's work, most of the FOI requests referred to in this report relate to cases where the requester has had an initial request refused by a public authority, and they have subsequently had to make an application to the Commissioner.
It is important to remember, however, that this is the exception, rather than the rule, and that the overwhelming majority of requests are answered first time, through the provision of information.
Only a small proportion of requests are referred to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is a safeguard, ruling on cases where the requester doesn't think the authority has dealt with their request appropriately. Most people who use FOI, however, receive the information they are looking for without any fuss - information which is then used to answer questions, resolve problems, and help people get to the heart of the issues that matter to them.
These pages detail a small number of these 'typical' FOI experiences.
The Learning Disability Alliance Scotland has been actively using its FOI rights for the past four years, gathering information on a range of topics to help it highlight the concerns of some of Scotland's most vulnerable people.
The Alliance, a coalition of organisations that support people with learning disabilities, was aware anecdotally that some people with learning disabilities were being inappropriately housed in care homes for the elderly – places that will often lack the specific skills or resources required to meet their particular needs.
It decided to conduct its own research on this issue, using FOI to gather data from public authorities to examine the true extent of the problem. The Alliance's subsequent report, "Stuck" highlighted that over 800 people in Scotland with learning disabilities are being housed in this way. The research also found that over 300 of these people were aged under 65 – and some as young as 19 – while the average age of care home residents was approximately 85 years.
The Alliance has subsequently used the report to bring their concerns to the attention of a wide range of stakeholders, including local authorities, the Scottish Government, and the Care Commission. The group's campaign to end the practice of housing people with learning disabilities in care homes for the elderly continues.
To hear members of the Learning Disability Alliance Scotland talk about their experiences using FOI, click on the video above.
Campaigning for change
The A82 Partnership is an informal group of community members, local businesses, individuals and others, campaigning for the upgrading of the A82. The road is the main route connecting the West Highlands to the central belt, and is described by the group as the 'economic and social lifeline of the west of Scotland'.
The group were aware from personal experience that the road was frequently closed, causing significant disruption to those who rely on it. What they lacked, however, was factual information to support their case, and provide hard evidence of this disruption. That was where FOI came in.
Using their FOI rights, the group were able to discover that the A82 was closed at some point in one day out of every three, illustrating the negative impact on the individuals and businesses that rely on it.
The group found FOI easy to use, and were able to quickly access relevant, comprehensive and accurate information. This information has subsequently been put to use in their lobbying and campaign activity, and has been presented by the group to Scottish Government.
The group have since gone on to have a number of successes, including having the road included in the list of transport projects to which the Government is committed in coming years.
To hear Stuart Murphy of the A82 Partnership talk about his experiences, click on the video above.
Alan Simpson made use of FOI following damage to his car, as a result of potholes on a council-maintained road. When he lodged a complaint with his local Council, he was informed that the road had recently been inspected, but that no defects had been found, and that no other complaints or claims in relation to the road in question had been received. The council informed him that it could not, therefore, be held responsible.
Alan questioned this response, and submitted an FOI request for details of inspections undertaken on the road. A response was received quickly, revealing that an inspection had, in fact, been carried out just prior to Alan's incident. This inspection had highlighted significant defects. In addition, the response to Alan's request also revealed that six reports of potholes on the road had been received by other members of the public in the weeks leading up to Alan's incident.
Alan used this information to challenge the Council's refusal to accept liability, and the Council subsequently reversed its decision.
It has since reimbursed Alan in full for the damage to his car.
The trade union UNISONScotland has used FOI regularly since the Act came into force in 2005, conducting, amongst other things, an annual survey of the number of assaults on workers across the public sector.
UNISONScotland's aim in undertaking this survey is to raise awareness of this issue and identify best practice, so that lessons can be learned across the public sector to help reduce the number of violent incidents against staff.
The responses to the survey identified some key gaps where information was not being collected but, in UNISONScotland's view, should be. Through publication of the study in October 2010, the union promoted the need for both systematic data collection about incidents and better reporting.
Dave Watson of UNISONScotland, who conducted the survey, is enthusiastic about the use of FOI as a research tool.
"It can be used to get a picture that isn't available any other way. The beauty of the process is that you can ask a consistent range of questions and get back consistent responses."