Freedom of Information Part 1

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This is a guest post by Paul Mutch of the office of the Scottish Information Commissioner

Scotland’s Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation celebrated its 5th anniversary on 1st January this year.  The introduction of the FOI Act has meant that, since 2005, the public have had a right of access to the information held by over 10,000+ public authorities – allowing individuals and organisations to access important information on the issues that matter to them.

But is this ‘right to information’ of value – and of practical use – to the voluntary sector?   Is FOI a tool that can be actively used e.g. to help fulfil organisation goals, to achieve campaign or policy objectives, or to advise clients? 

Recent statistics published by the Scottish Information Commissioner – the man charged with enforcing Scotland’s FOI legislation – appear to suggest that the use of FOI by the sector is low.  The Commissioner’s 2009 Annual Report – published online at www.itspublicknowledge.info/ask – reports that the voluntary sector accounted for only 2% of the appeals received by the Commissioner in 2009, compared to 73% from members of the public, and 13% from the media.  This figure also represents a decline from 2008, when 7% of appeals came from the sector. 

It is important, however, for this data to be considered in context.  These figures are only about the appeals made to the Commissioner, so they relate only to the situations when an FOI request has been refused by a public authority.  The data does not, therefore, include any of the requests which are answered first time, without the need to appeal.  Indeed, data on this aspect of FOI is limited, largely because the FOI process was designed to be as straightforward as possible – both for requesters (who don’t even need to mention FOI when making a request, nor identify themselves as a representative of a particular organisation) and for public authorities (who are not required to monitor, record or report on request volumes).

Where data is available, it suggests that voluntary sector requests will normally answered in full, first time, with no need to appeal to the Commissioner.  Recent research carried out by the University of Strathclyde found that voluntary sector respondents reported this outcome in 67% of FOI requests. 

There are many examples where FOI has been put to good use by a range of voluntary organisations and campaign groups. The Commissioner’s 2009 annual report details a number of these cases. We will look at some of those in the next post in this series.

For further information on using FOI, visit www.itspublicknowledge.info, or contact the Scottish Information Commissioner’s team at enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info, or by phone on 01334 464610.

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