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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced a new approach to prioritise complaints made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) where there is significant public interest.

As part of the ICO’s efforts to improve its FOI services, the new prioritisation framework will ensure that complaints where there is significant public interest in the information requested will now be dealt with quicker than previously.

For the past year, the ICO has streamlined its processes to better handle the volume and complexity of FOI complaints it receives, so it can do more regulatory activity targeted at public authorities that are failing systemically to meet their transparency obligations. The prioritisation framework is one of the ICO’s new ways of working to ensure people receive swifter responses.

John Edwards

“At the ICO we, like many public bodies, continue to face the long-term challenge of doing more with less in real terms. That is why we have been looking at ways to improve our FOI services, including making better choices to ensure we are delivering timely outcomes – such as prioritising issues that will have the greatest impact.

“Timeliness is everything in access to information, so we need the support from public authorities to ensure people are receiving timely responses. We will be doing our part by adding pace to our work, but we need commitment from senior leaders across public authorities to drive FOI compliance within their organisations, investing time and resources where needed to ensure people are receiving clarity about what information they are entitled to within the legal timeframe.”

- John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner.

In November 2022, the ICO launched a consultation on its proposed framework to prioritise certain complaints while also delivering a swifter response than ever to all incoming cases. The proposal recognised that FOI law is essential to a functioning democracy and that delays in the current system were undermining its effectiveness.

Following feedback from both the consultation and engagement sessions with stakeholders, the public interest criteria has now been clarified and refined. The new criteria provides clear guidance and expectations about what constitutes significant public interest – for example, if the issue is likely to involve large amounts of public money, or the information may significantly impact vulnerable groups.

The ICO will aim to allocate priority cases within four weeks and fast-track 15-20% of its caseload. In addition, it will close 90% of all the cases it receives within six months (up from its previous target of 80%). The criteria will be kept under review and cover complaints made under both FOIA and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

John Edwards

“Prioritisation will sit at the heart of our new operating model which is designed stand up to the rigours of the modern world. With these improvements to our FOI services, we are delivering one of the first outcomes of ICO25, our strategic three-year vision, and marking a real step-change in the efficiency of FOI law and the transparency it can bring.”

- John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner.

Introducing prioritisation is one of several recent improvements to the ICO’s regulation of the FOI Act. Over the last 12 months, the ICO has also reduced its caseload of 2,295 live complaints by almost two-thirds and delivered over 2,500 decision notices – more than any other year in its history.

As well as improving how complaints are managed, the ICO is also taking more proactive action against public authorities that are systemically failing to comply with the law.

It has issued a number of practice recommendations to improve performance, including one last week for the Department for Work and Pensions that sets out improvements, in relation to the quality of responses and internal reviews.

Last week, the ICO also issued its second FOI enforcement notice since the launch of its new FOI Regulatory Manual last year. The notice requires Lewisham Council to respond to hundreds of overdue requests for information.

To find out more about the new approach, take a look at the responses summary to the consultation and read this blog post from Warren Seddon, Director of FOI and Transparency at the ICO.

Notes for editors - new criteria for prioritising complaints

Is there a high public interest in the information requested? Does it raise a new, unique or clearly high-profile issue that we should look at quickly? Indicators of this may include whether:

  • the case is subject to significant media interest – eg there are existing news reports related to the subject matter in the public domain;
  • the case concerns an issue that is likely to involve a large amount of public money in the context of the size of the public body involved – eg, a local council contract for provision of services across its whole area or a nationwide central government spend;
  • the requester needs the information to respond to a live and significant public consultation and the time for achieving resolution is reasonable to inform the decision-making process.

Are any groups or individuals likely to be significantly affected by the information requested? This may include information:

  • which covers policies, events or other matters that potentially have a significant impact on vulnerable people or groups;
  • that has a high potential impact or harm on a proportionately substantial number of people in relation to the information requested;
  • that may directly affect the health or another personal issue of the requester or others, that means they need a swift resolution - eg, it may impact on treatment or is about a live court case.

Would prioritisation have significant operational benefits, or support those regulated? For example, is the request:

  • novel, or could provide the basis for guidance or support for other regulated bodies;
  • part of a round robin request or otherwise linked to other requests or appeals

Does the requester have the ability and desire to use the information for the benefit of the public? This may include where the requester has:

  • A clear aim of raising awareness around a topic of significant public interest and the means or contacts to do so.
  • Access to a suitable platform to allow the public at large to use the requested information to scrutinise the decisions made in the public sector.