A new report by the Scottish Information Commissioner examining the Scottish Government's handling of freedom of information (FOI) requests has found that, while significant improvements have been made in a number of areas, further work is required if FOI performance is to be raised and sustained.
The new report is part of an ongoing intervention by the Commissioner to support improvements in Scottish Government FOI performance. The latest findings were informed by a recent in-depth assessment of performance over a two-year period, from April 2019 to March 2021. The assessment examined the impact of the Scottish Government's new FOI procedures, introduced following a 2018 review by the Commissioner.
The report finds that improvements have been made in a number of areas, including evidence of:
- an increased understanding across the Scottish Government of FOI request-handling processes and procedures
- the ending of the inappropriate practice of handling requests from journalists and political researchers differently from other requesters
- a greater reliance on internal expertise in the handling of FOI requests.
However, the report also identifies a number of areas where Scottish Government performance and practice fell short. This includes:
- evidence of widespread failures to comply with records management requirements when handling FOI requests
- issues with the organisation's ability to track, monitor and report on key elements of FOI performance
- inconsistent compliance with new procedures designed to prevent delays in the approval of FOI responses.
Commenting on the findings, Scottish Information Commissioner Daren Fitzhenry said:
"It's reassuring to see that the Scottish Government has made significant improvements in a number of key areas and that elements of the new processes are impacting positively on organisation culture and practice.
"However, it is also clear that work remains to be done if the Scottish Government is to deliver sustained improvement in its FOI performance. While the pandemic was undoubtedly a factor in some of the issues we identified, it was evident that problems with records management; compliance with procedures; and the recording, tracking and monitoring of FOI requests stem from wider, more systemic, concerns.
"My report contains a number of recommendations to help the Scottish Government address these issues and support ongoing improvement in FOI performance.
"FOI is an important right. It enables people to understand more about the public services they use and the decisions which affect them; and supports public engagement. I will continue to work with the Scottish Government as it addresses my recommendations, to support the timely and effective delivery of FOI for everyone who seeks information from the Scottish Government."
The Commissioner plans to undertake a further assessment of Scottish Government performance in Spring / Summer 2023, in order to determine the extent to which the issues identified in this report have been addressed, and information a consideration of whether the ongoing intervention can be closed.