Tuesday, May 27, 2008

SIC newsletter May/June 2008

The latest edition of Inform, the Scottish Information Commissioner's newsletter, has been published. This edition focuses on the Commissioner's strategic plan for 2008-2012.

Investigating appeals will continue to be a key priority and, for applications received from April 2008, I want cases to be closed within 6 months on average with no case taking longer than 11 months. However, I am also devoting additional resources to checking compliance by public authorities outwith case investigations. I want to look at the track record of individual sectors and specific authorities, to see if there are chronic or repeated failings which could be addressed through an agreed action plan, or, failing that, by using my power to issue a recommendation as to good practice.

I will also be devoting more resources to improving the capacity of authorities and civic society to keep up to date with good practice and current thinking on interpreting freedom of information laws, by publishing handbooks, organising training events and conducting research. Across Scotland considerable investment went into staff training before the legislation came into force in 2005, but much of this addressed how the Act might work in practice. After 3 years and more than 600 decisions I want to refresh current thinking. This is particularly important if new public authorities are to be designated within the next four years. The changing ways in which public services are delivered has, I believe, led to strong arguments for designation, and I intend to help newly-designated authorities fully prepare for their new responsibilities.

FOI research opportunity

The Scottish Information Commissioner and Strathclyde University have been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Collaborative Doctoral Studentship to explore civil society’s uptake of freedom of information legislation.

The Commissioner’s own interest in this area stems from the comparatively low level of appeals received by his office from those within civil society, with voluntary or campaign organisations accounting for only 4% of the appeals received by the Commissioner in 2007/2008. In light of this, the Commissioner is keen to explore civil society’s interaction with FOI.

Details of the post are as follows:

University of Strathclyde / Scottish Information Commissioner ESRC PhD Studentship (Sociology)

'Public Communication, Democracy and Citizenship: Assessing Civil Society Uptake of Freedom of Information'

The Department of Geography and Sociology at the University of Strathclyde has been awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Collaborative Doctoral Studentship in partnership with the Scottish Information Commissioner for the topic 'Public Communication, Democracy and Citizenship: Assessing Civil Society Update of Freedom of Information'.

The doctoral researcher will undertake an analysis of the ways in which civil society groups have used freedom of information and access to documents provisions as part of their policy and campaigning work.

The aims of the study will be to:

1. Systematically map the use (or non-use) of FOI and associated legislation by a wide range of civil society organisations;

2. Examine the practice and strategy adopted by civil society organisations on FOI and how this fits with wider priorities in the organisation;

3. Contribute to academic debates on transparency, accountability and participative governance with particular reference to continuities and differences between accountability and transparency regimes in Scotland and England (and other devolved territories in the UK);

4. To contribute to policy debates on the role of civil society groups in enabling (or alternatively inhibiting) developments in transparency.

The award will run for three years from 2008-2011. The Doctoral award includes the full payment of fees to the University plus a basic maintenance grant. The annual standard rates of maintenance paid by the ESRC will be in the region of £14,300. There is a Research Training
Support Grant of £750. In addition the Commissioner will provide financial and in kind support towards the costs of fieldwork and other activities.

The deadline for applications is Friday 13 June 2008.

Further details, including details of the essential/desirable characteristics and full details of how to apply, can be obtained from Strathclyde University's website at http://gs.strath.ac.uk/.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Irish FOI 10th anniversary

The Irish Information Commissioner, Emily O'Reilly, is hosting a conference on Thursday (15 June) to mark the first decade of FOI in Ireland and the 10th anniversary of the Commissioner's office.

The Commissioner has also launched a Special Report 'Freedom of Information - The First Decade', an absolutely fascinating read. The report and the Commissioner's conference speech are available from http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/LatestNews/
I am sure that FOI has played, and continues to play, a vital role in our democracy. Furthermore, I am sure that FOI is here to stay. At the same time there is a real danger of complacency regarding the value of FOI as part of that wider set of arrangements which are meant to promote and preserve an open, liberal and democractic society...

I think it is only fair to declare that, from my perspective, our current amended FOI legislation marks a step backwards from the commitment to transparency and accountability, and the promotion of open government and an open society, which were the hallmarks of the FOI Act 1997. There is no reason to believe that the concerns which first prompted our FOI legislation are any less relevant today than they were ten years ago.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New guidance on FOI for public bodies

ICO press release
14 May 2008
New guidance is being published today for public authorities on how to handle requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

The booklet, Hints for Practitioners handling FOI and EIR requests, has been produced in collaboration between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The guidance provides FOI practitioners with advice on best practice in responding to requests for information. It will also help to ensure that freedom of information requests are handled consistently across the public sector.

Full press release (pdf)

Download Hints for Practitioners Handling FOI and EIR requests (pdf) (1.3MB)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

SIC guidance

The following further new guidance has been published by the Scottish Information Commissioner:

'National Security and Defence' (Section 31 & Regulation 10(5)(e))
'International relations' (Section 32 & Regulation 10(5)(a))
'Prohibitions on disclosure' (Section 26)
'Audit Functions' (Section 40)

Read the guidance here.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Policy advice released after months not decades

This article by Maurice Frankel appeared in Press Gazette on 2 May 2008
In the past, officials' advice to ministers, and the discussions leading to it, have been confidential. You could see it after 30 years, but not before. The Freedom of Information Act has shattered that convention.

Whitehall argues that officials need to be able to tell ministers, in private, what is wrong with their proposals. If their advice is disclosed and used against ministers, civil servants may pull their punches. Policies will not be properly scrutinised.

But the Information Tribunal has rejected the view that all such discussions need decades of secrecy. It has ordered disclosure of some material after only months. Despite two High Court challenges, the government has failed to overturn its approach.
Read the full article.
Government ordered to release CBI lobbying documents

Friends of the Earth
Press release 1 May 08
The Government has been ordered to disclose previously secret records of lobbying by business group the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), in a judgment published today (Thursday 1 May 2008), following a court case won by environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth.

In July 2005 Friends of the Earth requested details of lobbying meetings between the CBI and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that had taken place shortly after the last General Election [1]. The information included records of monthly meetings between Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alan Johnson, and Director General of the CBI, Digby Jones. The information also includes the notes of a private away-day between senior CBI and DTI officials shortly after the last election.

In 2007 the Information Commissioner ordered the DTI to release most of the information requested by Friends of the Earth.

However, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) - where Lord Jones is now a Minister - appealed to the Information Tribunal to overturn that decision .
...
In a ruling published today (Thursday 1 May 2008), the Tribunal ruled that nearly all of the disputed information must be released because there is a strong public interest in understanding how lobbyists influence government. In this case it is not possible to distinguish whether the CBI was neutrally advising or influencing government so there is a clear case for releasing the information in the public interest [5]. The Tribunal found that the lack of a lobbying disclosure system as they have in the USA increased the need for transparency.
...
Phil Michaels, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth, said: "We welcome this very important Information Tribunal decision.

"The Tribunal has recognised the strong public interest in members of the public having access to lobbying records and has recognised that transparency is particularly important where a group like the CBI has privileged access to Government to push their views.

"It is crucial that the Government now changes its outmoded culture of secrecy and recognises the importance of transparency in its dealings with lobby groups."

Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform v Information Commissioner and Friends of the Earth (pdf)