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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Freedom of Information - from ambition to action

Freedom of Information is an essential part of a thriving and effective democracy. Scotland needs to move from the ambition of support for open government, to putting the legislative and practical measures in place to strengthen it. 

Today, I was speaking at the Scottish Public Information Forum in Edinburgh, reconvened by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland.

Margaret Keyse the Acting Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) outlined the work of the SIC. 
There were 540 new appeals last year, 231 decision notices and dealt with 1554 enquires. Nearly 70,000 requests were made to Scottish public authorities, and that is probably an underestimate. There is a high general public awareness of FoI and support for the law, although that awareness is limited.

They have regularly highlighted their concerns about the limited scope of FoI in Scotland. Recently, in a special report, the SIC argued that it is time for a substantial rethink on pro-active publication of information. Monitoring of the Model Publication Schemes shows that public authorities generally have them and are good at giving advice and assistance, but 79% don't publish open data. There are some big changes ahead. Not least European developments including a possible two tier approach to FoI and the General Data Protection Regulations that will come in before Brexit.

Alison MacKinnon from SEPA focused on the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, an often forgotten aspect of FoI that came from older international information requirements. She gave an interesting insight on how they deal with requests, reminding us that EIR has a somewhat wider scope and fewer exemptions. There has been a steady increase in requests in recent years, still 40% from the public, but increasingly from consultants and industry.

Paul Holleran from the NUJ outlined developments in the media and in particular the pressure on journalists due to reduced staffing levels. A particular concern is the big reduction in investigative journalism and that may explain the reduction in requests from journalists. The malaise of fake news and cuts in journalism, at national and local level, is undermining democracy. 

Ruchir Shah from SCVO made the argument that transparency is a political weapon and reflects a global challenge to inequality. There is a risk that people are speaking in bubbles, not to each other. He described the Open Government Pioneers Project, which is about building capacity in civil society as a way of increasing transparency and open government. A global movement that Scotland is a part of.

Carole Ewart from the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland described their latest project, sponsored by UNISON Scotland, looking at compliance and current practice. She argued that Scotland is some way from achieving an information rights culture and there was a need to integrate with human rights and other public policy initiatives. The Scottish Government needs to keep promises on FoI in areas like expanding the scope of FoI, cost thresholds, the previously moribund forum (SPIF) and pro-active information.

UNISON's interest in FoI includes our campaigns function and as the union that represents most FoI staff in public bodies. My own presentation made the case for extending the scope of FoI to all those who receive the public pound. I also gave some feedback from FoI staff who are struggling to cope with the demand for information at a time of staffing cuts, particularly in administrative functions. There are also capacity issues in the departments who have to provide the information. Staff also identify resistance from senior management and poor awareness of FoI amongst some senior colleagues. 

I also gave examples of poor compliance based on our own experience of making FoI requests. We are experiencing examples of public bodies simply not responding or using delaying tactics. Examples include daft points of clarification or references to online documents that don't actually include the information we asked for. Others deliberately avoid the question, by answering a question we haven't asked. We often have to go back several times before we get a proper answer. 

There was a really useful discussion on the practice of FoI in Scotland. A big theme is that we have some grand rhetoric on open government, when the reality falls far short of that language. A good example this week is the Justice Committee scrutiny of the Scottish Police Authority, holding its meetings in private. There is some evidence that organisations who receive the public pound through contracts or grant funding are discouraged on the grounds that 'don't bite the hand that feeds you'. There are many ways of getting around this, given that anyone can make a request.

There is some concern from bodies not currently covered, such as housing associations, about their capacity. There is clearly a need to improve skills in making requests as well as strengthening public bodies capacity to respond.

In these challenging political times, there has never been a greater need for open government and transparency of information. This is a field that Scotland could be a world leader, in vision and practice. Today's event shows we have much to do, but there is a willingness to make the journey.

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