The Commissioner's programme of practice assessments was launched in May 2008 and is now entering its third year. The purpose of the programme is to explore whether an authority's actual practice in dealing with information requests fully complies with its obligations under the FOI legislation and the associated codes of practice.
During 2010 the Commissioner established a small team to undertake assessments. The aim of this team is to work closely with individual authorities where problems may have been identified and assist them to develop practical solutions so that any issues can be quickly resolved.
Following each assessment, the Commissioner's team produce a report which is then passed to the authority for comment. The authority is also asked to produce an action plan based on the report's recommendations. Following this, a final report and action plan are issued to the authority. The authority is given timescales in which to implement any actions, with their subsequent progress being monitored and supported by the Commissioner's staff.
Fourteen public authority assessments were undertaken during 2010. All assessment reports and action plans published to date are available online.
Sharing good practice...
With almost three years of assessment experience and over twenty assessments completed to date, it is now possible to review our experience and begin to highlight those areas where best practice is being demonstrated by Scottish public authorities.
Areas of best practice identified so far include:
- A culture of openness and transparency which extends beyond those who are primarily tasked with handling FOI requests
- Senior members of the organisation demonstrate clear knowledge of FOI, along with commitment, support and positive attitude towards FOI.
- Robust FOI monitoring and logging systems, which are accessible to all relevant staff and assist in compliance with the statutory timescales
- Consistency in FOI responses
- Monitoring of internal performance
Structure and processes
- The establishment of flexible structures to deal with FOI requests, that reflect the requirements of the organisation
- A robust and independent review procedure
- An organisational-wide minimum level of knowledge of FOI
- Rolling training programmes
- A willingness to continually improve in light of internal experience and external developments.
- Effective internal communication channels within the organisation
- A willingness to assist requesters as far as reasonably possible in order to provide them with the information sought.
To date, the assessment process has been viewed as a positive and constructive experience by participating authorities. With Scottish public authorities facing current and future budget constraints, the Commissioner anticipates that his assessment programme will continue to help public authorities to achieve FOI best practice and fulfil their statutory obligations in as efficient and effective a manner as possible.
A good news story
On 6 July 2010 the Commissioner issued his first Practice Recommendation to Scottish Borders Council. Under section 44(1) of the FOI Act, the Commissioner can issue a Practice Recommendation where a public authority does not conform to the various codes of practice issued under the FOI legislation.
The Practice Recommendation followed an assessment visit to the Council which found that it was failing to conform to the codes on matters of training, meeting deadlines, monitoring requests and in the content of refusal notices.
As a result of the actions set out in the Practice Recommendation, however, the Council went on to dramatically improve its performance in complying with FOI requests. Following assessment, for example, the rate of compliance with the FOI Act's 20 working day response timescale increased to 99.7%, from 71% in 2009.
Read more in the news release issued by the Commissioner.