Perm sec admits 'room for improvement' over Scottish Government correspondence delays

A quarter of ministerial correspondence replies missed their deadline, as did one in six FoI responses
Photo: Jana Schneider/Pixabay

By Louise Wilson

26 May 2022

The Scottish Government’s new permanent secretary, John-Paul Marks has promised to "monitor quality and performance" across its departments after it emerged that almost a quarter of ministerial correspondence was not responded to within the allotted 20 working days in the last year.

Figures show that between May 2021 and April 2022, only 77% of replies met the deadline.

Nearly one in six Freedom of Information requests to the Scottish Government were not answered within the 20-day time limit last year.

In addition, just 83% of parliamentary questions – those submitted by MSPs to ministers – received a reply on time in 2021. That figure improved to 90% in the first quarter of this year, however.

Answers to parliamentary questions should “normally” be provided within ten days when parliament in sitting or 20 days when it is in recess.

Writing to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee, Marks, a former director general at the Department for Work and Pensions, acknowledged there was “room for improvement”.

He added: “I, along with my executive team, will continue to monitor quality and performance across correspondence, as well as PQs and FOIs to ensure that we have the processes, skills and culture in place to deliver a consistently high level of service.”

The perm sec also committed to improving the government’s record keeping and information management systems.

It follows a number of questions being raised after a key part of the audit trail over a controversial ferry infrastructure contract.

Documents relating to the delayed and over-budget ferries project was discovered in an old email chain between civil servants.

Scotland’s auditor general said last month that the failure to properly document the decision-making process relating to the two delayed and over-budget CalMac ferries wass “inconsistent” with guidance on the handling of public funds. A March Audit Scotland report revealed “multiple failings” relating to the contract, with the two ferries now expected to be five years late and more than £150m over budget.

Marks has now said said the late discovery of documents was “unacceptable” and that he is working to ensure the system for recording ministerial decisions was “consistent and robust”.

He said: “Plans are in place to build a programme of continuous improvement to achieve the highest standards in information management, both in terms of practices and culture.

“I expect, and will demand of my teams, a rigorous approach to recording official advice and government decisions, underpinned by reliable search and retrieval technology to ensure accountability and transparency.”

Louise Wilson is a journalist for CSW's sister title Holyrood, where a version of this story first appeared.

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