Berlin – city of many stories, many histories, great architecture, two reunited parts – and, recently, home to an international FOI case handling workshop. It was the workshop that saw me there in May, along with representatives from 15 other access to information jurisdictions across Europe. Many of the delegates presented over the two days, offering a range of perspectives on their experience securing FOI compliance.
Listening to the presentations, I learned a lot, but also came away satisfied that we have a robust, mature regime in Scotland, with much to cherish. In Scotland our Commissioner is responsible for both FOI and environmental information law (not all are), which has distinct advantages in terms of coherence – and, more importantly, we have the power to impose enforceable sanctions (their absence is a common concern for many regulators) and a comprehensive regime, with exemptions but not exclusions (of either significant authorities or broad categories of information).
The nettle of extension – to recipients of public funds, political parties, business organisations and trade unions, amongst others – has certainly been grasped elsewhere. For some countries, recent experience of totalitarianism or endemic corruption has played a key part in helping to recognise the value of FOI as a tool for transparency and reform.
There’s a whole range of issues that everyone seems to share, to varying degrees, including:
- Public authority resources and knowledge
- Requesters who exhibit challenging behaviour
- Accessibility, particularly in terms of being able to locate information readily
Sharing experience in these areas was particularly helpful.
On the other hand, some regimes seem to function quite happily with considerably shorter timescales than ours – in Albania, for example, public bodies have just ten working-days to respond to requests. More markedly, most seem to see a far greater use by voluntary organisations than we’ve tended to experience.
The FOI/ data protection interface is always a challenging one. The skills and experienced acquired through sharing DP and FOI functions may help (I’m not sure), but it did become apparent that the challenges become all the greater once open data (relating to public servants) becomes part of the picture.
The workshop was rounded off with a tour of the Reichstag (as they call the building – it houses the Bundestag). The building’s story – and the spectacular views from the roof – capping an illuminating couple of days perfectly.
Deputy Head of Enforcement