Report from our 'Beat the FOI Clock' workshop at the 2022 Holyrood FOI Conference
Paul Mutch, Policy & Information Officer, Scottish Information Commissioner
FOI law requires that all requests are responded to promptly, and within 20 working days at the latest.
This is, however, an area that we know some public bodies can find challenging. 18% of appeals to the Commissioner in 2021/22 related to a failure to respond, while public authority FOI statistics reveal that, while 86% of the nearly 74,000 requests made last year were responded to on time, this nevertheless means that around one in seven requests received a late response.
Responding on time is important. It is, of course, a statutory requirement, with which authorities are required to comply if they are to meet their responsibilities under FOI law. Beyond that, however, late responses can also create escalating challenges for authorities. They can lead to the receipt of time-consuming reviews or appeals to the Commissioner, which all take resources away from other work. Most importantly, failures to respond will also lead to delays and frustration for requesters, which in turn can fuel mistrust and contribute to increases in request volumes, the development of more challenging relations, or reputational harm.
It’s in everyone’s interest, therefore, to ensure that FOI requests are responded to on time.
Our workshop at the 2022 Holyrood FOI conference sought to support authorities to bring about improvement in this important area. The session featured a panel of staff from across the public sector, whose organisations were each able to achieve an “on-time” response rate of 98% or above across 2021-22. Speakers were invited to share some of the strategies, techniques and tips that were key to their organisation’s compliance with FOI timescales, to inform and support others.
Our panel featured speakers from:
- North Lanarkshire Council - which reported receiving more than 1,400 requests last year with a 98% response rate
- The University of Strathclyde - which responded to 99% of the 300+ requests received in 2021/22 on time
- The Scottish Police Authority - which achieved a 100% compliance rate across the nearly 100 requests received last year
While the differing sizes, sectors and request profiles of these organisations inevitably meant that each organisation faced different issues and approaches, a number of common themes emerged which were helping to support success in this area.
Common themes included:
- Administration and tracking of requests
All three organisations highlighted the importance of the effective administration and tracking of FOI requests to ensure compliance with timescales. Speakers stressed the importance of getting the request to the right person or department as early as possible in the process, with North Lanarkshire Council identifying problems with this as one of the most common causes of late responses. In general, it was recommended that the correct department was identified and the request assigned to an appropriate individual for a response on the first or second day following receipt.
Our speakers also stressed the importance of identifying more complicated or time-consuming requests early in the process, enabling these to be flagged, appropriate action taken, and additional resource allocated, where relevant.
The effective tracking of requests was also identified as a key factor, with speakers reporting that request progress was monitored and tracked by FOI staff, enabling supportive action to be taken in situations where difficulties had arisen or progress had stalled.
- Management and culture
Speakers discussed the positive impact of organisational culture on FOI compliance, with a wider culture of compliance and an organisational commitment to the principles of openness and transparency recognised as an important factor in supporting success.
The importance of reinforcing the purpose and value of FOI to staff was also noted, with our speakers taking the time to engage with departments, business areas and colleagues to provide training, support and advice. The University of Strathclyde also highlighted the benefit of identifying opportunities to align FOI messaging with wider strategic aims, to reinforce the role that good FOI can play in supporting wider organisational goals.
- Staff resource
An appropriately trained staff resource was, of course, a key element of success. Speakers highlighted the value of having experienced, knowledgeable individuals dealing with FOI, available to provide specialist advice and reassurance to colleagues, where needed. The need to build resilience into the FOI function was also discussed; recognising the value in developing colleagues and building skillsets to support success.
Alongside this, the importance of providing an appropriate level of training and awareness for staff was noted, ensuring that all staff are aware of FOI requirements and expectations when relevant requests are received.
Senior staff support for FOI was also recognised as a valuable asset, enabling an FOI ‘champion’ on the senior management team to reinforce messages, report to colleagues, liaise with other senior staff, and open channels of communication, where necessary.
- Regular review
Finally, the benefits of a regular review of FOI process and practice were highlighted, with the Scottish Police Authority noting that they had built a 6-monthly process review into their procedures, enabling them to learn from recent experience, and review and improve their processes, where required.
Regular review of requests and responses was also helpful in relation to proactive publication, with speakers noting the positive impact of taking time to review what is being requested, and seeking opportunities for proactive publication, where appropriate.
Want to know more?
The Commissioner has developed a self-assessment toolkit module designed to support authorities to bring improve in this key area. Visit our self-assessment toolkit resources to find out more.