13 January 2022
Lessons can be learnt from how freedom of information (FOI) practice has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Scottish Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry has said.
In a new special report, the Commissioner shows that FOI in Scotland has held up reasonably well in spite of challenges including reallocation of resources, closure of premises, limited access to systems and information, and staff shortages or absences. However, the report also identifies ways in which FOI can be further improved to strengthen the public's access to information in a modern, post-pandemic context.
The report includes the following recommendations:
- FOI is a core function, and authorities should ensure it is afforded the resources and senior-level attention it requires.
- Authorities must consider the ways in which they create, store and manage records, particularly when using new technologies.
- Authorities should take a positive, responsive approach to publishing information, learning from the experience of the pandemic.
- Information should be provided in context to help people understand it and reduce the risk of misinterpretation.
- Authorities must have regard to their FOI obligations when implementing new systems or processes, including business continuity arrangements.
- Steps should be taken to address disparities in access to information between equivalent public services based on how they are owned or managed.
The Commissioner and his team have monitored the impact of Covid-19 on FOI in Scotland closely, and this latest analysis follows an earlier report published in December 2020 that summarised the initial effects of the pandemic on Scottish public authorities and their FOI performance.
In publishing the report, the Commissioner said:
"FOI in Scotland - in terms of the system itself and the people who work in it, day in day out - has shown remarkable resilience to the significant challenges posed as a result of the pandemic. Though the work of my office might inevitably tend to be focused on cases where a requester is dissatisfied with the response of an authority, we have also seen many examples of good practice over the past two years.
"Nevertheless, there are a number of lessons that can be learned and ways in which both FOI and wider authority practice can be further improved to strengthen the public's access to information in a modern, post-pandemic context, and I set these out in my report.
"I hope that as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, all who are involved in FOI can in a sense return to some fundamentals; recalling what freedom of information is for and the spirit of openness that it is designed to promote, conducting the process in a constructive, mutually supportive manner, and being mindful of the effects that these extraordinarily difficult couple of years have had on us all."
The report can be found at www.ItsPublicKnowledge.info/Covid-19-Special-Reports.