Commissioner calls for radical rethink on freedom of information

30 April 2017

Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew, in her last official report to Parliament before leaving office at the end of April, is calling for debate about a radical rethink of freedom of information (FOI) law./p>

While recognising that it is essential to preserve the enforceable FOI right to ask for and be given information by Scottish public authorities, the Commissioner is calling for a major shift in approach, to one which focuses on transparency through publication: making information accessible and available, in real time, without people having to ask for it.

Launching Proactive Publication: time for a rethink? Rosemary Agnew said:

"Work on this report started long before I knew I was stepping down as Commissioner. As I reflected on my experience of FOI, both as Commissioner and before, I increasingly questioned the sustainability of the current approach. It was, and remains, essential to establish an enforceable right to information and we have seen that information disclosed through use of this right has brought to light important issues and change. But I question whether this is enough in a changing world to achieve true transparency of public services in Scotland.

"The current regime virtually demands authorities focus their resources on responding to requests. While FOI, and other law, also require authorities to have a publication scheme and publish certain types of information, investment in this is often secondary. Indeed, our recent "mystery shopping" research revealed that some authorities were doing the minimum to meet these duties. This is a far cry from publishing information in the public interest in order to communicate effectively and achieve transparency. My power to enforce publication duties are comparatively weak, and the public does not have a clear route to challenge authorities. A more equal status in law between an authority's duty to publish and its duty to respond would help address this.

"But even strengthening the publication duties in the current regime has its limitations, as it is about publishing the information authorities have already produced, and often after the event. True transparency will only come about when citizens have a more active role in decision making and can access information at the point it is required.

"Our Ipsos MORI polling, which we publish today, found that 56% of people now prefer to access information about public authority services through an authority's website. Society and how we access and use information is continuing to change rapidly, particularly in our use of technology. FOI laws must keep pace if they are to continue to be effective."

She added:

"I feel very privileged to be Scottish Information Commissioner, and cannot begin to describe how much I have enjoyed the last five years. FOI brings real benefits to the people of Scotland, and we should be proud of what we have collectively achieved since it was introduced. It is with great sadness that I leave the post and my excellent team in St Andrews."

The Proactive Publication: time for a rethink? Special Report was laid before the Scottish Parliament on Friday 28 April.

Ms Agnew is taking up the post of Scottish Public Services Ombudsman on 1 May 2017. The Scottish Parliament is currently recruiting for Ms Agnew's replacement.


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