Sunday, May 23, 2004

Conference Report: Access to Information,London , 12th May

The Conference Proceeding are now available online
Well worth a look, especially if you did not attend the conference. In addition to this information, here is a brief report from my perspective:

The "Access to Information" conference has definitely found a place as an annual FOI event already, even though it is has only been running two years. The conference was well attended and can be recommended for the networking opportunities alone.

The day was useful in two different ways - the morning gave a perspective on overseas FOI and the role of the separate legislation governing environmental information whilst the afternoon was focused upon the official work of Andrew MacDonald at DCA and Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner. A quick summary of some of interesting points that arose.

The New Zealand ombudsman Judge Anand Satyanand who takes the role similar to the Information Commissioner in NZ made the opening speech and offered an important insight into the 20 years experience of New Zealand related to FOI. The insight he offered should encourage more FOI practioners to look at NZ as well as the more obvious egs such as Ireland, Australia and Canada. New Zealand has some different terminology for FOI but has many broadly similar features (see his slides at the URL above). Interesting he revealed that the Ministerial veto has never been used in NZ, he explained how his role as NZ Ombudsman has been to try to reach consensus solutions. His concept of looking at information released was interesting: he talked of pre and post decisional information requests, pre going to government departments formulating policy and post going to departments implementing policy (e.g regulatory). Interestingly, due the wide range of MPs in the proportionally represented parliament and their needs for information, MPs and their parties are heavy users of the Act as a tool for building evidence.

Lord Filkin the Minister at DCA responsible for FOI spoke in the morning, primarily it seems to encourage work on implementation. Key phrase was: "we can now see the whites of the eyes of the Act". He left most of the important announcements to the afternoon.

The work of Alasdair Roberts as the University of Syracuse, NY is fascinating, and his use of the Canadian FOI Act in his research is well worth reading on the slides for download. He researched the way Canadian departments, tag and monitor requests using electronic request management systems and subsequently use briefing systems to "spin" any negative impacts.

I also encourage all FOI practioners to think if they have not done so yet about the Environmental Information Regulations. The speech given by Jayne Boyes was informative in making clear where they boundaries lie with FOIA 2000. All very neatly summed up in her paper and the case studies available for download. The key message is that EIRs are in force now and are far more "open" in the ways information can be released and require careful management alongside FOIA 2000.

In the afternoon, as well as request workshops in which we worked through fictional request scenarios, the main focus was on Andrew McDonald who outlined the DCA timetable for FOI implementation. The key parts I've already outlined on the blog:

May - monitoring systems (Central Government), systems requirement and training guide
June - new FOI website, e-network for practioners and FOI brand
July - central government guidance (first edition)
Aug -fees order

Since then we've had the discussion about the nature of the fees order to be published in August.

Richard Thomas gave an excellent speech to round off the conference, outlining the importance of FOI, his role and put forward his perception of the Act; not being as weak as often perceived. One interesting bit of news was that he has started legal proceedings against Allerdale Council over missing the publication scheme deadline- a slight bearing of teeth perhaps.

Anyway, an excellent day, well done to the Constitution Unit for organising it. The above is not meant be a comprehensive overview, just a few highlights.



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