Commissioner's Statement on 2021-22
Meeting challenges and improving for the future
One of the most welcome features of 2021-22 was finally seeing promising signs of the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. From the roll out of the vaccine programme, to the reopening of schools and the removal of ‘stay at home’ restrictions, 2021-22 saw significant steps towards the return to a far more normal way of life for many.
However, the ‘long tail’ of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt in a number of ways, and its impact is likely to last for some time to come.
For my own office, one key impact was a significant rise in number of appeals we received: a pattern familiar to many of my fellow regulators. The appeals received during 2021-22 rose by 29% on the previous year, as those who had used their FOI rights to access information sought certainty on the accuracy of the responses received (or, in some cases, challenged a failure to respond).
In total 626 appeals were received across the year – the highest made since 2005-06. Appeal subjects reflected a wide range of issues of personal and public interest: from discharges from hospitals to care homes to a review of the Curriculum for Excellence; from planning for future Covid-19 waves to neighbourhood noise complaints.
This increased exercise of rights inevitably created challenges for my small team, exacerbated by the high caseload carried forward from the previous, pandemic-disrupted, year. This has unfortunately contributed to some delays being experienced by those who use our service. We have, however, been working hard to manage these delays: keeping applicants informed of the progression of cases - including by increasing the information we publish about our live caseload on our website; working to streamline and improve our processes; and work to recruit new staff.
Across the year my team worked extremely hard in difficult circumstances, closing almost 550 appeal cases: the highest number since 2013-14. While rising case numbers mean that the current financial year will continue to pose challenges, I am confident that the recruitment of new staff and the continued development of our procedures will leave us in a strong position to address these challenges as we move forward.
It has also been extremely important that my team remain proactive and “future-focussed”; not just “fighting the fire” of rising appeals. To this end, our work to improve authority performance through targeted and proportionate interventions has continued; helping to nip problems in the bud, while supporting authorities to implement solutions that benefit all requesters, not just those making single-issue appeals. This year, for example, I reported on the outcomes from a detailed assessment of Scottish Government practice and performance, identifying both significant improvements and further work required. An intervention with the University of Edinburgh also resulted in demonstrable improvement, following engagement with senior management.
2021-22 also saw the development of our new, improved website: a fast, modern, and accessible site for the future, enabling both the public authorities covered by FOI and those who may wish to request information to access timely and clear guidance on FOI rights and responsibilities. This major piece of work which significantly improved our main external communication channel was launched in April 2022.
Other work has included engagement with the Scottish Government and campaigners on potential improvements to FOI legislation, together with a second Special Report on the impact of the pandemic on FOI in Scotland. We also published research into public awareness of FOI and carried out a survey of FOI practitioners, all of which is set to support and inform our future work.
Internationally, I supported FOI campaigners and regulators in Hungary and the Philippines as they worked to improve their systems, while also learning from their experiences and approaches. I also continued my engagement with the international community of Information Commissioners; sharing resources and contributing to discussions on a wide range of topics, including widening understanding of FOI rights and improving the openness of public bodies.
Further information on all this work (and more) is detailed throughout the report below.
Despite the pressures of the past year, I am confident that the work done leaves us in a stronger position to face the challenges of the future. The experience of recent years has only served to underline the vital role that FOI plays in improving the transparency of public bodies and supporting informed participation by individuals. Looking towards future challenges, including the significant challenges posed by the cost of living crisis, it is clear that a strong and effective FOI regime and the openness and transparency it creates remains key in supporting accountability, strengthening participation and building trust in our public services.
Scottish Information Commissioner