Sharing Experience

Voluntary sector

Civil Society and FOI

Since 2008, the Commissioner has been undertaking work to explore the extent to which campaign groups and voluntary organisations are making use of FOI legislation, while also developing resources and creating opportunities to ensure that the voluntary sector has the information it needs to use its rights effectively.

This work has come in the wake of evidence suggesting that the voluntary sector may be failing to make full use of its FOI rights. Indeed, in 2010, only 3% of appeals were received from the voluntary sector, compared to 74% from members of the public. This statistic is surprising, given the relevance of FOI rights as a tool for civil society in their engagement with the public sector.

Research project

A key part of this work has been supporting the University of Strathclyde to undertake ongoing research into the voluntary sector's use of FOI. The first phase report from this research study was published on our website in January 2010, and made for interesting reading. The study found that, while there was a strong awareness of FOI rights within the sector (78%), a significant proportion (49%) nevertheless held concerns about using these rights, fearing that it may harm working or funding relationships.

This aspect of the findings was particularly concerning, and a second phase report, which will explore these issues further through qualitative interviews and analysis, is due to be published in 2011.

Outreach and resources

Alongside this research, the Commissioner has been developing resources for the sector, as well as creating training and awareness-raising opportunities. Workshops and training sessions have been held in 2010 with a number of key organisations, while, in December, the Commissioner piloted the first in a series of regional FOI 'roadshows'. For this roadshow, the Commissioner's staff travelled to Inverness to host FOI awareness-raising sessions and one-to-one surgeries with local voluntary organisations, campaigners and individuals. Further roadshow events are planned for 2011.

Positive signs

There are signs that our awareness-raising activity is bearing fruit, and that voluntary sector organisations may be increasingly inclined to make use of their FOI rights. As the case studies in this report show, there are a number of emerging examples where voluntary sector organisations have made effective use of FOI, and testimonies from third sector users were also at the heart of much of the Commissioner's 5th Anniversary campaign activity.

The number of enquiries that the Commissioner received from campaign and voluntary sector bodies also increased substantially in 2010, with a 62% increase in enquiries from this group over the course of the year. FOI has the potential to be a powerful tool for voluntary sector organisations, and it is encouraging to see that a growing number of bodies are beginning to explore the ways in which they might make use of that tool.