13 July 2022
This is the third in a series of updates from Warren Seddon, Director of FOI and Transparency. His blog posts provide a regular update on our FOI work and share key learnings to help practitioners and the wider FOI community understand our developing thinking and carry out their roles. You can read Warren's last blog post here.
On 11 July 2022, we published our landmark report, ‘Behind the screens – maintaining government transparency and data security in the age of messaging apps’. The report highlights the problems that can occur when public authorities fail to make sure their information management policies and procedures reflect the way they are conducting official business in practice.
It is over 20 years since Parliament first passed the Freedom of Information Act and a lot has changed in that time. It is vital that public authorities ensure the way they handle FOI requests reflects how officials and Ministers are working and interacting today. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) must also adapt and make sure the way we regulate the FOI Act reflects the realities of the world we live in.
Later this week we will publish our three-year strategic vision – ICO25 – that will set out some significant changes that the Information Commissioner is making to ensure the ICO’s regulation of the FOI Act lives up to this challenge. We touched on some of these changes in my last blog and I wanted to update you on three important areas of change that you can expect to see in our strategy later this week.
Delivering a better service
I know from speaking to the wider FOI community that delays in getting access to the information public authorities hold is one of the key frustrations encountered by many requesters. As part of my last blog, I highlighted that the ICO is seeking to improve this situation by making fundamental changes to the way we work.
So where have we landed on these decisions? Well, ICO25 will set out three key developments that will be introduced with the specific aim to speed up the handling of requests and give people quicker access to the information they are entitled to under the act.
Firstly, we will be looking at prioritising requests where we consider that there is a clear public interest in moving them up the queue, so they are resolved more quickly. We already do this in some cases, but plan to publish updated criteria later this year to reflect this expanded approach.
Secondly, we will be taking a fresh look at how we resolve disputes. We will be working more closely with requestors to get clarity on precisely what information they are looking for and working with public authorities on exactly what exists and is available with a view to seeing whether early resolution can be reached between the parties without a need for a formal ICO decision notice.
Finally, we are also exploring how, as part of the commitments we make in ICO25, we can clear the cases already with our office even quicker than planned. This will free up resources to deliver our wider ambitions and ensure we deal with new cases faster.
Taking more systemic enforcement against authorities consistently failing
We are committing to delivering more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations.
As part of this commitment, we have published today our FOI and Transparency Regulatory Manual that sets out our initial approach for how we will be looking to take further enforcement action in the future – including monitoring those public authorities with the poorest overall performance.
The manual sets out the framework for how we will be increasingly looking to take further action against public authorities that continue to demonstrate poor FOI performance, including those: demonstrating a wilful or negligent attitude to FOI compliance; those significantly or repeatedly failing to follow the good proactive guidance we have published; or those that have failed to follow previous advice or comply with lower-level enforcement action.
Our staff will begin delivering on this approach straight away and we will publish the action we take in line with our current approach so that this is fully transparent. We will continue to highlight the progress of this work through the blog and other channels as it develops.
Being more transparent about our own FOI casework performance
Following feedback from the FOI community, I am also pleased to confirm that we will now be publishing quarterly updates on our FOI casework so people can see how we are performing as a regulator and how long they can expect to have their cases resolved. The first update has gone live today, and we will continue to provide these on a quarterly basis. You will see that we have set ourselves some challenging targets here; showing the importance we assign to this and which we hope others will too.
Complimenting this work, we will be improving the way our formal Decision Notices are presented on the ICO website so that they are easier to search though and access by subject matter or exemption quoted. This will help public authorities and requesters see how we have ruled on similar cases before helping to inform public authority responses and helping requesters understand if a decision is likely to be overturned by our office.
Together these changes represent a package of measures that – alongside the new team we are setting up to provide enhanced support to public authorities– aim to ensure the ICO’s regulation of the FOI Act meets the challenges of the modern age and improves our service year on year.
We will not stop there and will continue to look at what further efficiencies we can make in subsequent years to speed up the way we do our work. We want to continue to make sure the FOI community – including requesters, public authorities and civil society – continue to be a part of these discussions. So, look out for ICO25 later this week and find out what else the Information Commissioner has planned for our FOI work over the coming years.
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).