We are consulting on how we prioritise the complaints we receive about public bodies’ handling of information requests.
Limited funding, an increase in FOI cases brought to us and an increased need to support stretched public authorities have created ‘a perfect storm’. We are therefore looking at ways to improve our FOI casework services to make information rights work more effectively.
We are proposing a new prioritisation criteria covering complaints made under both the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
This includes the proposal to prioritise complaints where there is a clear public interest in the information that has been asked for. Public interest covers a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society.
The consultation document sets out the new criteria, including the following tests:
- Is there a high public interest in the information requested? Does it raise a novel or clearly high-profile issue that we should look at quickly?
- Is the requester a person or group who is raising information rights awareness, supporting vulnerable groups or raising awareness of potentially significant public interest issues?
- Are vulnerable groups or people potentially significantly affected by the information requested?
- Would prioritisation have significant operational benefits or support those regulated?
The present system means cases are taking a long time to complete, which ultimately hinders the delivery of effective transparency and open government. As part of this proposed approach, we aim to allocate priority cases within four weeks and complete them at pace. We will complete 90% of all cases within six months.
We will, of course, continue to resolve all the complaints we receive in line with our statutory duties and we will never predetermine the outcome of a prioritised case. We may uphold the complaint or we may not. Where possible, we will resolve a case based on the information available to us when we receive it, either through a decision notice or dispute resolution. This will provide regulatory certainty to the requester about our decision as quickly as possible. They or the public authority can then move forward as they wish to access other remedies, including to the tribunal.
This work is one of the first outcomes of ICO25, the ICO’s three-year strategic vision, which sets out how the ICO will regulate information rights as efficiently and effective as possible.
The proposal is a mitigation of issues in the current system, whilst we work to tackle the backlog, bring response times down, and improve performance of public authorities.
We are keen to hear a range of views, including those from members of the public requesting information, journalists, public authorities and civil society.
The public consultation on the draft document will remain open until 5:00pm on 20 December 2022. We may not consider responses submitted after the deadline.