FOI during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

Special Report - January 2022

The Scottish Information Commissioner has monitored the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on freedom of information (FOI) in Scotland closely. In this second report exploring the topic, the Commissioner analyses key impacts across 2020 and 2021 and reflects on lessons to learn in order to strengthen FOI practice, performance and culture.

The report makes the following recommendations and observations:

  • FOI is a core function, and authorities should ensure it is afforded the resources and senior-level attention it requires.
    Poor FOI performance impacts on the reputation of the entire authority, and can be a symptom of broader shortcomings in practice and culture in the authority. Our interventions consistently show it is only when senior managers take ownership of these issues that lasting improvements can be made. Everyone in a public authority has a part to play in supporting the FOI function, and appropriate training and support should be provided to help them understand those obligations.
  • Authorities must consider the ways in which they create, store and manage records, particularly when using new technologies.
    Freedom of information is only as good as the quality and availability of the records to which it provides access. Public authorities must ensure information is stored and managed in a way that enables relevant and important information to be provided, and allows the public to understand and scrutinise the authority's activities. With the widespread adoption of new technologies, systems and devices being used for work purposes, authorities must put in place effective, up-to-date procedures to ensure records that have been created are retained appropriately and are able to be found if requested.
  • Authorities should take a positive, responsive approach to publishing information, learning from the experience of the pandemic.
    With the right strategy, proactive publication can reduce the need for FOI requests, make responses to requests easier and more effective, manage public expectations, demonstrate transparency and accountability, and maintain trust. Regularly reviewing what is being asked for, considering what is likely to attract interest and being aware of what other authorities are publishing can all contribute to achieving these outcomes.
  • Information should be provided in context to help people understand it and reduce the risk of misinterpretation.
    The pandemic has led to an unprecedented level of public appetite for accessing and scrutinising complex information - some of which may be misrepresented or simply misunderstood, while in many cases information disclosed has prompted further questions. Providing appropriate context when information is published or disclosed could save time later by reducing the likelihood of queries, requests, or appeals.
  • Authorities must have regard to their FOI obligations when implementing new systems or processes, including business continuity arrangements.
    The impact of the pandemic, and in particular the requirement to close office premises, created unprecedented challenges for authorities in providing many of their services and functions. New ways of working were quickly rolled out, sometimes with information governance implications. Moreover, prioritisation of some functions resulted in the reallocation of resource away from FOI in some authorities. However, FOI remained an obligation throughout, so authorities need to ensure they properly account for it when implementing new systems or processes, including in making business continuity plans.
  • Steps should be taken to address disparities in access to information between equivalent public services based on how they are owned or managed.
    For example, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the differences in how FOI applies to private care homes and those run by a local authority. I look forward to supporting future consultation activity regarding extending the coverage of FOI law, to ensure it keeps up with modern public service delivery models and continues to serve the public interest.

Download the Special Report

FOI in Scotland during and after the Covid-19 pandemic


Further information

Read the report in full and contact the Commissioner's team for further information, copies in alternative formats or to discuss the findings.

For more information about the emergency changes to the law as a result of the pandemic, visit the Covid-19 and FOI information hub; and to stay up to date with the latest FOI news in Scotland, sign up to the Commissioner's Open Update newsletter.


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