The public sector can help drive trust in their services by giving people the information they are entitled to.
We at the Information Commissioner’s Office have been working hard, following the commitments made in our ICO25 plan, to make improvements to our Freedom of Information services. We want to enhance the experience and outcomes for people making FoI requests and also support public authorities to be transparent and accountable about the decisions they make.
We now have a new upstream regulation team in place to provide more help for public authorities dealing with FoI requests. The team’s remit includes promoting good practice, one of the specific duties of the ICO set out in the FoI Act.
In order to provide the best support we can, our team has been establishing exactly what the civil service and other public authorities want help with and what they think that support should look like. To do this, we have commissioned independent external research and ran a survey with public bodies at the end of last year. As well as looking externally, we are using insight and evidence from our own casework and stakeholder engagement to identify where support is needed.
Once we have the results the external research, we’ll be finalising our goals and programme of work to ensure we’re providing the best resources and support possible to public authorities.
In the meantime, we know responding to information access requests on time is an issue. We see it in the complaints we receive and hear about it from our stakeholder engagement. Delays in the handling of FoI requests can be a source of frustration for people, and undermines the purpose of FoI legislation.
Complying with FoI response timescales is a legal requirement, so we have developed a suite of products to help the civil service improve compliance with freedom of information law and respond to information requests without delay. That includes resources to assess your compliance proactively, an action plan for improving services that can be easily adapted to different circumstances, and toolkits that can help those in the public sector comply with their legal duties.
"Delays in the handling of FoI requests can be a source of frustration for people, and undermines the purpose of FoI legislation"
In addition to these products, we have issued a number of practice recommendations relating to responding to information access requests on time. Other public authorities can learn from the recommendations we have previously issued.
We are also working on encouraging proactive publication of information that is in the public interest and is safe to disclose. Earlier this month we published new FoI case studies about how proactive disclosure of information can benefit request handling, as well as an example of recovering compliance with statutory FOIA and EIR timescales. Our recent publication scheme report contains an analysis of a snapshot of compliance of 200 public authorities, as well as recommendations to help support public bodies comply with this area of the law. We will use this report alongside the results of external research we are procuring, and output from the ICIC Transparency by Design Working Group, to develop future work on proactive publication.
These resources will provide support to the civil service in complying with information access legislation. And we’ll build on that support in the coming months. That in turn will build trust and confidence in those responsible for making public information available.
Deborah Clark is upstream regulation manager for FoI and transparency at the Information Commissioner’s Office. She is responsible for supporting public authorities to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations.