Issue 7: Nov 2013

WE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW

By Rosemary Agnew, Scottish Information Commissioner

Rosemary Agnew is now settling into her second year in the job as Scottish Information Commissioner. She’s the second to hold the role; whose first occupant was Kevin Dunion and she started there in May 2012. It’s not only been a busy year, but even busier than before, with the Annual report revealing increases in FoI requests across a wide range of public bodies. There has been a 14% rise in appeals to the Commissioner in 2012/13 and 27% of those appeals relate to a failure by the public authority to respond. This is the highest proportion of such appeals since the office of Commissioner was established. Under Scottish FOI law, public authorities have a legal duty to respond to the requests they receive within 20 working days; clearly many are not meeting that deadline.

Rosemary Agnew has a background almost ideal for her current role as she was previously Chief Executive of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and Assistant Ombudsman at the Local Government Ombudsman, and so is familiar with operating within a regulatory environment.

Fittingly just at the end of her first year in office – almost a celebration – Parliament approved a Bill amending the original FOI legislation to enable the extent of on demand public enquiry to reach into bodies such as local authority leisure trusts – a growing group of bodies that the Cabinet Secretary clearly singled out. These bodies may have been the ones to hit the headlines but the Amendment Act also provides for an extension (through Ministerial action) of FOI enquiries into bodies carrying out contracts for public authorities such as, potentially, private companies.

Scottish Policy Now started by asking Rosemary how the first year had gone and whether she’d found any surprises or developments she had not really expected.

She’s clear that her background had helped a lot and that there had been a smooth introduction for her – other than the greater visibility that attaches to such a post with the ever constant possibility of public enquiries that decision makers in various public bodies just might not like. “It has become apparent to me that it is a much higher profile role than I had at first expected. I have a good team to work on enquiries and decisions and we work as a team but the decision goes in the name of the Scottish Information Commissioner.”

Unsurprisingly – and realistically after the years of initial anxiety and suspicion about FoI, Rosemary stresses that good practice in information transparency flows from being well organised in respect of the records that organisations keep. What has pleasantly surprised is the growing number of organisations where she and her team find that better and more effective integration of records and systems is to be found. Her office has no doubt that being organised to handle information requests from enquirers and doing that well reflects well–ordered systems.

If there is a gap and an area to be addressed by continuing to develop good practice across the whole array of public bodies it is getting better ‘macro‘ information on FOI requests. She suggests that the data held '... across all the public bodies we cover is not helpful in getting a Scotland wide picture. ... It’s improving and we continue to encourage public bodies to keep comprehensive data on all the FoI requests they receive, even those dealt with easily; speedily and to the satisfaction of everyone involved.'

She cites the difficulty of assessing the impact of a growing awareness of rights to information across the piece. “...for instance, I know that applications to us…..(where there had clearly been some problem with an FOI request) …..increased by 14% last year (it was 23% the year before) but those are the applications I see…”.

Her point is that these figures show an increase just in those original FoI requests that have been rejected or otherwise impeded and it’s not clear whether this reflects an overall increase in requests or just a spike in those not resolved by the public body involved.

Rosemary lays great stress on the extent to which the Commissioner supports public authorities to develop their systems; enhance and encourage good practice and see that disseminated throughout the individual organisations and across the sector as a whole. “We’re developing a monitoring approach to see if, and in what ways, we can assist improvements in information handling in public authorities.”

One of the reasons for this is that she has some worries about the sometimes observed lack of integration in handling information requests in a variety of public organisations. "Our staff often report excellent practice and commitment within the people most centrally involved in responding to data and information requests. However in some, often quite widely distributed bodies, it can be slightly less well organised in parts of the organisation."

Part of the underlying logic of encouraging public bodies to think clearly about effective and considered information management and the way in which they handle this is that it will better enable them to respond to requests for information. If a body knows where information is stored, or can direct people to it through a formal Publication Scheme, the cost and frictional staff costs of handling that request will be much less. This will be part of the development and support work that Information Commissioner staff will continue to develop and encourage with the range of organisations they’ll work with.

When asked whether organisations continue to complain about the costs of complying with FoI requests, Agnew suggests that this is heard much less frequently than it was some years ago. She also points out that as with all ‘appealable' contacts, the closer to the front line any contact is met and satisfied the lower the costs to the organisation. It’s a persuasive argument, familiar to anybody who has considered customer enquiries to large firms, complaints about public service decisions or any determination of a decision that can be appealed in some way.

Interestingly, it appears that the recent extension of the original act to extend to some public bodies acting on behalf of public authorities (and council leisure trusts were singled out by Ministers) was accomplished relatively rapidly and - so far - smoothly. She says "... we were pleased that this extension occurred in this way, open dialogue helped, and such change set a good precedent for other possible future developments and extensions..."

As pointed out in our opening paragraphs, Leisure Trusts may be the ‘contracting organisations‘ currently in the government’s mind as specifically referred to during the passage of the Amendment Act, but there might be others to come.

By Rosemary Agnew, Scottish Information Commissioner

Issue 7: Nov 2013

Issue 7: Nov 2013

HEALTH, WELL BEING AND AGEING: SCOTLAND 2020

Re-energising the move towards integrated care

Scotland's move to integrated care can learn from elsewhere by focussing on two key differentiators between successful partnerships and those paying lip service to integrated working: Shared outcomes and common language is one, the other is demonstrating mutual investments and mutual benefits.

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