by Paul Mutch, Policy Officer, 18 May 2021
When there's something you need to know, how do you find the information you're looking for? Carry out an internet search? Check the website of the organisation that's likely to have the answer? Pick up the phone? Or email an organisation, and wait a few days - or weeks - to find out?
For most of us, our first step will normally be to look online. As users and consumers of information, we want and expect to find what we're looking for quickly and easily, normally within a few clicks, at the end of an online search. Writing to an organisation - making an FOI request if it's a public authority - may be something we'll usually only consider if we can't find the information online, or our request is too specific or too personal to be published.
The value of published information is recognised in FOI law. The FOI Act's 'publication scheme' duty requires that public bodies make information about the services they provide, the decisions they make and the money they spend accessible to the public. Requirements to publish information are also found in other laws, and proactive publication is supported and encouraged by wider initiatives, including the Open Government Partnership, which this week celebrates Open Government Week, a global event aiming to enhance the transparency of public bodies and support public participation in decision-making.
It is widely acknowledged, however, that the FOI Act's 'publication scheme' duty needs to be refreshed. In the 18 years since Scotland's FOI law was passed, people's expectations around what information should be made available and how it should be accessed have changed, and changed significantly. This will have only accelerated over the past year, as people have found themselves spending more time online than ever before, with the value of reliable, up-to-date, accessible and understandable public information never being clearer.
Later this year there will be an opportunity to improve this. Following on from the Scottish Parliament Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee's review of the FOI Act, the Scottish Government has announced that it will consult on a number of changes to FOI law in the autumn, including the duty to publish. We look forward to making the case for our preferred approach in due course: a simple statutory duty to publish, supported by a flexible, legally enforceable Code of Practice on Publication. This approach would ensure that the duty to publish is fit-for-purpose and future-proofed, capable of being adapted and updated in response to both technological advances and changes in public expectations - addressing how information should be available as well as what information should be available.
But public authorities don't have to wait until then to think about whether they're publishing the right information for their service users; or making it as findable, understandable and usable as possible. Proactive publication should be built into the planning and delivery of public services, helping to support transparency, enhance participation and build trust. This work can happen now, and our self-assessment toolkit on publishing information is designed to help authorities improve in this area.
And, given this is Open Government Week, what better time to start?