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Director’s update: the FOI year in review

Warren Seddon is ICO Director of Freedom of Information and Transparency responsible for the ICO’s freedom of information (FOI) policy and guidance. Warren also oversees the handling of people’s complaints to the ICO over public authorities’ responses to requests for information under the FOI Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

 

ClipboardIt’s fair to say that it’s been a heck of a year for the FOI team.

We’ve received more than 8,000 complaints – against a previous high of 6,418 in 2018/19. Of around 7,700 cases we’ve closed in this period, 96% have been resolved in less than six months, another record high. We finished the year with only one case over a year old, which is due to the rare appeal of an Information Notice that should be resolved shortly, meaning the Cabinet Office cases discussed with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last year are all closed.

So, the first thing I want to do is say thank you to our FOI team for another incredible effort over the last year following their achievements clearing our Covid-related backlog.

We know the pressure we face is also replicated in the volume of requests many public authorities are receiving, and it’s important to acknowledge the huge efforts they are putting in to support people’s rights, including responding to us on complaints. We continue to explore what we can do to support them in their efforts on top of the upstream tools and guidance we already offer. We are keen to understand what FOI practitioners think of these resources, and what else you would like, so please spare a few minutes to complete our survey and help us plan our future work. The survey is open until 16 May 2024.

Doing things differently

As we enter the last year of ICO25, the team is under real pressure given the sheer volume of cases now coming to us. It means our caseload – and its age profile – is creeping higher despite the significant improvements we’ve made. We are doing everything we can to keep on top of this within our limited resources.

This is why we need to keep exploring ways to do things differently. We are working closely with customer service colleagues across the ICO to identify further efficiencies in how we work, from simplifying processes and supporting our people to exploring how new technology can help us work smarter. We’ve also carried out training on dispute resolution to help us resolve cases in different ways and will be seeking to embed this over the next 12 months.

We will also keep identifying the simple changes we can make to improve our service for our staff, public bodies and those that come to us for help. A good example of the latter is the change we have just made to our decision notices.

From now on, where we find a public body has got things wrong, they will have 30 days to comply with a decision, bringing this into line with information notices. This reflects our statutory requirement to allow for appeals to the Tribunal, while ensuring we adhere to the Commissioner’s maxim that information delayed is information denied.

Prioritisation update

It is also now 12 months since we implemented our new approach to prioritisation and, overall, this has gone very well.

We have prioritised 250 cases since implementation, the vast majority of which were allocated to a caseworker in less than four weeks and closed, on average, within 10 weeks. Of these, 61 were closed informally, with some or all of the information requested being released in 26 cases. We issued 146 statutory decisions, upholding the public authority in 88 cases while finding against them in some, or all, aspects of the case in 58 cases. This is not a significant difference from our historic closure data and final figures will be in our annual report.

The year ahead

In addition to tackling our record intake, we don’t want to lose sight of our wider regulatory activity. We issued a record eight enforcement notices over the last 12 months, which have addressed backlogs affecting over 3,000 information requests. We will keep exploring what more we can do to understand performance across the public sector and will take action where needed.

One of the ICO’s values is to be curious, and we’ve embraced this in FOI by looking to be more innovative in the use of our powers. Having previously only used them on complaints we issued a statutory information notice, for example, to explore the use of public interest extensions, which led to action against a government department.

Having noticed the poor performance of some higher education institutions in Scotland, we also sampled performance in this sector across the rest of the UK and found that overall performance was good in the institutions we examined. In one case, however, we had to engage with a university to highlight unacceptable performance, which led to swift action being taken by it to clear a significant backlog without us needing to take further enforcement action.

We have also been working with our legal colleagues to develop a process for using our powers to refer a public authority for contempt of court if they fail to comply with a statutory decision or notice. This power has never been used in practice and compliance is usually very good – with bodies responding quickly when we chase them on the rare occasions a deadline is missed. But we are now in a much better position to go down this route if it’s necessary at any point in the future.

So, while there are significant challenges ahead, we are committed to making sure we remain creative in making the most of our resources and powers to ensure people’s right to access information works as well as possible.

 

 

 

 

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