The ICO exists to empower you through information.

10 August 2023

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).



Just over a year ago, I announced that we had published our new Freedom of Information (FOI) regulatory manual, which set out our approach to more strategic enforcement of FOI in line with our statutory powers. Now, 12 months on, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on what our new way of doing things has helped us to accomplish.

What we’ve achieved

We launched the manual as a pilot and I am pleased to say that it has been a resounding success. In the 12 months since its publication, we have delivered more strategic regulation in this area of our work than in the 17 years since FOI came into force in 2005.

We have issued 12 practice recommendations (PRs) over the last 12 months, compared to nine since 2005. That includes three PRs that we issued recently and are publishing today that are designed to support improvements in the FOI processes at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Liverpool City Council and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

In general, we have been pleased to see the action taken by public authorities to comply with the recommendations we have made. Where we are not satisfied with the response to the PR we will progress, where appropriate, to enforcement action, as recently seen in the case of the London Borough of Croydon. Equally as positive has been the feedback we have received from some public bodies who have indicated that they have used the PRs issued to others to proactively review and improve their own services. This is a key reason why we have been publishing this information, so it can help others improve as well as hold the authority subject to the PR to public scrutiny and it’s great to hear this is happening in practice.

We had previously issued just three enforcement notices since 2005, the last of which was in 2015. Over the last 12 months we have issued six, including two we are publishing today requiring action to clear request backlogs at the Ministry of Defence and the Environment Agency. This action is important. In each case where we have issued an enforcement notice there have been dozens, often hundreds, of people waiting for responses to overdue requests. This is unacceptable and we will continue to take action when we see significant backlogs have built up and we have concerns about the plans in place to address them.

Feedback on our approach

As part of the pilot approach we took to implementing the manual, we have conducted a lessons learned exercise to understand what has worked well and where we could improve. We sought feedback from the public authorities we have taken action against, as well as from our staff, on their views about how the new ways of working were operating in practice.

Overall the feedback was positive and we have now published a final version on our website with some minor changes to reflect the move away from the pilot phase. There are no fundamental changes we are making to the content of the manual, although as part of the feedback we will put in place support for those staff not involved in our monitoring and enforcement work to date as we embed the approach across the team. We are also looking at how we communicate the likelihood of action with public authorities when we engage with them as our proactive approach is embedded more widely.

We see this area of work as an essential part of delivering our ICO25 commitments to promote openness and transparency across the public sector. It sits alongside other operational changes we have made to improve our FOI service, from prioritising cases, to accepting complaints without an internal review if the recommended Code of Practice timeframe has been exceeded to prevent so-called stonewalling.

Just reactively handling individual complaints is not enough, we need to continue looking more strategically across the public sector and offering support where this is needed, but taking action where this is not enough to drive the improvement that is necessary. I hope the strides we have taken over the last 12 months to move this work forward, while also clearing our Covid-related complaint backlog and issuing a record number of decision notices, makes clear our commitment to this.