Scotland rises to the challenge of freedom of information?but more can be done
Research published on 28 September - the 5th annual International Right to Know Day -suggests that, while Scottish public authorities are complying with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act on a practical level, there is evidence to suggest that some authorities have developed practices to 'manage' the release of sensitive information. The report, "The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002: New Modes of Information Management in Scottish Public Bodies?" was commissioned by the Scottish Information Commissioner and prepared by researchers from the University of St Andrews and the Caledonian Business School.
The report found that:
- 89% of authorities reported that their organisations were now more transparent as a direct result of the legislation.
- 74% stated that records management has improved as a consequence of the Act.
- A minority of authorities reported that the 20 working day response timescales in the Act had caused difficulties, with 30% stating that they had experienced problems in meeting these timescales. A further 25% also took the view that perceived "abuses" of the Act were an issue, with the use of the Act by journalists singled out by several authorities as a cause for concern.
- There was evidence of authorities developing practices to 'manage' the release of sensitive information, with one authority reporting that it had used the FOI response timescale to delay the release of such information.
Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, said:
"I commissioned this research to get an independent insight into how public authorities were responding to freedom of information laws. I am pleased that it shows authorities are working hard to meet their obligations. However, it also reveals that we need to open up debate about how we fully meet the stated aim of moving from a culture of secrecy to one of openness. Issues such as what records are created and maintained and the extent to which these are made public still need to be addressed."
The research concludes that strong leadership within authorities is vital if the spirit, as well as the letter, of the FOI Act is to be adhered to, and that authorities should do more to share best practice on FOI matters. The research also calls for the Scottish Information Commissioner to assist authorities further by more effectively distributing information to authorities on FOI learning points.
The Commissioner added:
"I welcome the recommendations for my Office which have emerged from this report, and I am pleased to note that they reflect my own plans for the improved communication of information to public authorities."
Dr Eleanor Burt, from the University of St Andrews, said:
"For FOI to make its greatest contribution to democratic government in Scotland, our research suggests that public bodies must embrace it as being at the heart of what they do, rather than as an adjunct to their service providing role."
Professor John Taylor, from the Caledonian Business School added:
"Our research findings raise the vital question of whether Scottish public bodies are able to realise the administrative, organisational and democratic gains that they can derive from improving citizens' access to information."
The full research report can be downloaded by clicking on the link below.
Research Report 28 September 2007 (PDF - 560KB)
Following the publication of this research report, the Commissioner and the research team held a conference in St Andrews on Friday 16 November 2007 to further debate and explore its findings.
The summary report from this conference can be downloaded here.
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