All of the Level 2 interventions that were active in October to December 2021 were continued from the previous quarter; five of them remained open at the end of the period.
Compliance with timescales
Authorities: Highland Council, Scottish Ambulance Service Board, Scottish Police Authority, University of Edinburgh.
These interventions were opened in 2020 after analysis of the authorities' FOI statistics showed a long-term trend of high rates of late responses to requests (since before the Covid-19 pandemic).
The interventions have involved:
- seeking an explanation of the factors that have led to the high late-response rates
- advising the authority to complete a self-assessment and produce an action plan
- requesting details of the actions to be taken by the authority to improve performance
- monitoring and seeking evidence of their progress towards a target outcome
Monitoring of Highland Council's performance continues, with monthly FOI performance statistics shared with the Commissioner's team after review by senior managers, while the council continues to focus attention on services with the highest late response rates and/or largest request volumes.
The latest available statistics (for July to September) show that around 17% of the council's responses were issued late - similar to each of the previous four quarters. This means the authority remains some way off the target level, and in light of this, contact will be made with them in January/February 2022 to explore what other actions can be taken.
The Scottish Ambulance Service Board has made some significant improvements in recent months, with statistics for July to September 2021 showing just 5% of responses being issued late (compared to more than 20% in the previous two quarters), against a backdrop of increasing request numbers.
However, monitoring will continue to establish whether this improvement will be sustained despite ongoing resource reallocation and other pandemic-related challenges. In addition, other measures identified to improve performance, including staff training, new systems and proactive publication, have been hindered as a result of organisational pressures.
The University of Edinburgh continues to make excellent progress in clearing the large backlog of requests that had built up during 2020. An update submitted during the reporting period showed a reduction from over 230 to around 20 overdue open requests in the space of just a few months.
Although the authority's late response rate remained extremely high in July to September 2021 as a result, the authority now expects to be able to focus on reducing that and we will continue to monitor this closely in the coming months.
The intervention with the Scottish Police Authority was closed in December 2021 after the authority exceeded its intervention target by responding on time to all FOI requests received in the first 9 months of 2021.
This success can be attributed to the following actions:
- The refreshed approach to FOI implemented by the authority, with a reallocation of responsibilities and more active senior-level oversight of FOI performance.
- The implementation of new policies and procedures for managing FOI requests, including in relation to collating information internally, consulting third parties where appropriate, and responding promptly as well as within 20 working days.
- The enhancement of the authority's FOI function, with additional staff recruited or assigned, external training provided to five team members, improved internal communications, and an emphasis on making information available proactively.
Management of FOI function/culture
Authority: Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
Work continues to support the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to rebuild its FOI performance following the cyber-attack in December 2020, prior to which the authority had recorded high rates of late responses to requests over a sustained period. Meetings were held with the authority on 21 October and 3 December 2021.
SEPA is now working on an action plan for FOI which will form the basis of our monitoring through the intervention. However, access to records remains a huge problem for SEPA.
Our aim in our interactions with SEPA remains to ensure the authority fulfils its obligations under FOI law - particularly given the passage of time since the cyber-attack - whilst understanding the challenges it continues to face. As well as our intervention, a number of investigations are ongoing in relation to appeals submitted to the Commissioner regarding SEPA, many of which concern its failure to respond to a request.
Publication scheme issues
Authority: Aberdeen Performing Arts.
Aberdeen Performing Arts (APA) is one of a number of authorities which had failed to publish a Guide to Information, as required in order to comply with the publication scheme duty in FOI law. The intervention had been escalated to Level 2 in September 2021 after the authority missed the original deadline and didn't respond to reminders.
We received a response from APA in October 2021, explaining the specific challenges the authority had faced - including but not only those faced by many similar authorities as a result of the effects of the pandemic - and the actions it had been taking during that time.
The response confirmed that a Guide to Information is now published, and will be updated as more information is published on the authority's redeveloped website. The intervention has therefore been closed.
Authority: Fife Council.
An intervention with Fife Council was opened in response to practice issues raised by an applicant in an appeal and related correspondence; those issues related to the quality of searches carried out by the authority, their management of multiple related requests, and their provision of advice and assistance.
These concerns were taken up with the council, which had already carried out its own evaluation of its request handling. We were satisfied that the steps the council had taken were largely adequate, but agreed that we would work with them to monitor the quality of their internal reviews for a period of three months.