Daren Fitzhenry, Scottish Information Commissioner
27 September 2023
When moving on from any role, it is common to reflect on the many ‘lasts’ that arise. As my term as Scottish Information Commissioner nears its end – I demit office in October – I have, in recent weeks, seen my fair share of these. I recently delivered my last speech as Commissioner to the Dundee Centre for FOI Practitioner’s Conference, I am currently preparing my last Annual Report for publication, this week will see me give my last update to the Scottish Public Information Forum, and I will soon sign my last Decision on the FOI cases that have been appealed to this office.
And you are now reading text prepared for the last newsletter that I will issue as Commissioner. It seems appropriate, then, that I use this opportunity to share some brief reflections on the current health of FOI in Scotland as my term of office draws to a close.
Firstly, it is clear to me that, despite some challenges, Scotland’s FOI regime continues to broadly perform well. Our FOI statistics show that almost 84,000 requests were made to Scottish public authorities last year, and the overwhelming majority of those – 86% - were responded to on-time by public bodies.
Of course, success isn’t just measured in response times - it’s also measured in outcomes - and last year our statistics showed 75% of FOI-users receiving some or all of the information they wanted, with 52% receiving all the requested information. These figures rise even further to 84% and 59% when ‘information not held’ responses are set aside.
The typical experience of someone who makes an FOI request in Scotland is, then, that they receive the information that they are looking for, on-time, and in response to their initial request. The success of Scotland’s FOI regime in this regard, and the impact that the prompt disclosure of information can have for those who request it, is something which should be recognised, valued and celebrated.
Secondly, my time as Commissioner has left me in no doubt that central to Scotland’s FOI success are the people who make it work. Scotland’s FOI practitioner community serve as the beating heart of our regime and I have, throughout my term of office, been hugely impressed by the overall dedication of Scotland’s FOI staff, and the sense of purpose and professionalism which they bring to this important role.
FOI staff can often find themselves working in difficult circumstances, acting as the vital linchpin between concerned members of the public and sometimes-stretched providers of public services. The manner in which this role is delivered and the quality of the engagements that result will be key driver in delivering positive outcomes for both the individual and organisations.
In this respect, I was particularly pleased to be involved in the launch of the first eCase FOI Awards last year, a UK-wide award scheme which recognises good practice, and I look forward to seeing these awards go from strength to strength in future, celebrating the important and often innovative work done by staff in Scotland and beyond.
Thirdly, while FOI is generally working well, there are clearly a number of challenges which require to be addressed. It is clear, for example, that Scotland’s twenty-year-old FOI law is failing to keep pace with changes in delivery models for public services, or public expectations on accessing information in the digital age.
One of my early tasks as Commissioner was to provide evidence to the Scottish Parliament on the need for reform to ensure FOI remains fit-for-purpose into the future and, while the pandemic undoubtedly played a part in slowing the progress of that reform, it is nevertheless disappointing to find my term of office ending six years later without definitive action having been taken. I am optimistic, however, that the recent consultation activity will herald positive legislative change.
Other current ‘live’ issues include discussions around the appropriate role of AI tools in supporting FOI request handling and proactive publication, and the importance of ensuring that non-traditional methods of communication – whether it be via Teams, WhatsApp or any other service – are appropriately integrated for records management and FOI purposes, ensuring that transparency and accountability is maintained and strengthened. The principles of openness and transparency are, of course, core values in Scotland’s National Performance Framework, and by enabling them, FOI permeates through and actively contributes to the meeting of Scotland’s National Outcomes.
And finally, I would just like to say that it has been an honour for me to serve as the third Scottish Information Commissioner; and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to work alongside my excellent team here in St Andrews and meet with and learn from our stakeholders across Scotland. Whether it be those seeking to use their FOI rights, those responsible for responding to requests, or those working to research, safeguard or improve FOI, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you all, and I hope that our paths cross again in the not-too-distant future.
I also offer my congratulations to David Hamilton on his appointment as the fourth Scottish Information Commissioner, and wish him well in the exciting role of taking Scotland’s FOI regime forward into the future.
Scottish Information Commissioner