You can learn from case studies on how organisations recovered their own compliance with statutory FOIA and EIR timescales, including new ways of working and proactive disclosure of information. We will continue to develop further case studies.
- London Borough of Camden: Business as usual responses
- Reducing our information requests backlog – an ICO case study
ICO comment: what this case study means
This case study shows one of the benefits of proactive disclosure of information. It’s quicker to direct someone to publicly-available information than it is to provide an individual copy of that information every time someone asks for it. The case study also shows that informal, business as usual (BAU) responses can be a quick and effective way of dealing with information requests. Organisations just need to ensure it does not result in any lowering of standards in the time taken to issue the response or in the quality or amount of information provided.
The London Borough of Camden takes a forward-thinking approach to issuing responses to requests as “business as usual.”
Camden issue prompt replies without the formality of a full FOI response when:
- they can direct the requester to publicly-available information; or
- when information is readily available and disclosable and it appears that a BAU response would satisfy the requester.
They do this even when a requester specifically cites that they are making their request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Camden’s BAU responses begin:
“Thank you for your request. We are dealing with this as a routine request rather than formally as a Freedom of Information Act request so we can provide you with a faster and less formal response…”
and close with:
“…this doesn’t remove or affect your rights under the Freedom of Information Act. So if you’re unhappy with this reply for any reason please let us know. We will then have a look formally under the Act and send you a formal reply within 20 working days of your original email.”
Camden’s starting point for handling BAU responses is to check their previous FOI responses via their Open Data Portal. They then check other records available through the portal. If they have not already proactively disclosed the requested information, the staff handling requests liaise with relevant departments to check if the information is readily available and if they can provide it as BAU.
This approach allows Camden to issue straightforward responses to sometimes complex requests for information. Camden is satisfied that, by doing this, they are in line with ICO’s guidance, which states that:
“The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recognises that some public authorities may initially respond to questions informally, but we will expect you to consider your obligations under the Act as soon as it becomes clear that the applicant is dissatisfied with this approach.”
ICO guidance also states:
"In many cases requests may be dealt with in the normal course of business provided this does not result in lower standards (eg disclosing less information, or taking longer to deal with the request)."
BAU responses now make up a significant amount of Camden’s annual FOI traffic.
For the last two full financial years, Camden has received over 1800 requests, and has closed nearly 30% of them as BAU.
Camden’s informed estimate is that a typical BAU response takes 10 minutes. If they issued those requests with full FOI formal responses, Camden estimate that they would take around 30 minutes. This means that they save around 20 minutes per BAU response.
Issuing 500 BAU responses – as Camden did in 2020/21 – saved 160 hours, which is nearly five working weeks. This frees up time for staff to concentrate on other FOI requests.
Requesters benefit from a very fast reply. Most requesters get a response within three working days, and a significant amount receive it the same working day.
Of course, it is very important that if people wish to have their request handled under FOI, Camden respect their rights. They must issue a response within the statutory time frame, dated from the initial receipt of the request.
Only two requesters have asked that Camden treat their BAU response as a formal FOI response instead. Camden have received no complaints from requesters about their approach to BAU disclosure, and instead receive regular praise for their fast replies.
Camden’s approach to BAU works well because they have invested in proactive disclosure. When public authorities make information readily available to the public, it becomes quicker and easier to handle information requests.
What this case study means
This case study shows that when a backlog of requests builds up, and compliance rates fall, public authorities should consider making changes to their usual processes to improve the focus and efficiency of their request handling. The case study sets out how the ICO adapted and developed our own request handling processes to recover compliance. Increasing the amount of staff working on request handling is not possible for every public authority but this case study also shows the impact of using additional staff where this is possible, as was the case here.
As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed, the ICO built up a backlog of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and subject access requests. Our timeliness compliance rate was also falling.
By adopting some new ways of working, creating a late cases project team, and using resources from across the organisation, we cleared our late cases and increased our timeliness compliance rate to 99%.
The ICO has around 1000 staff. We have received more than 2,000 information requests a year for the last 3 years. An average of 1230 per year were FOI requests. We only receive a very small amount of EIR requests.
Further detail on the types of requests we receive is available in our annual reports.
Requests are handled by our Information Access (IA) team. IA work closely with other ICO departments to locate records and make decisions about what information can be disclosed.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, a backlog of information requests had started to build up. The impact of the pandemic resulted in a growing number of overdue cases and a falling compliance rate.
By September 2021 we had over 90 late cases. Our FOI and EIR timeliness compliance rate had dropped to 74%.
We aimed to clear all late cases and reach 92% timeliness compliance by 30 June 2022.
To achieve this, we introduced new processes and created a late cases project team to clear the backlog, with some overtime also dedicated to late cases for the rest of the team.
We were able to allocate resources, by seconding colleagues from across the ICO to work on incoming cases for 3 months. We were also able to call on the expertise of former IA team members to help mentor those secondees. The secondees attended the IA team’s standard twice-weekly “Request Queries” sessions, where the team can collaborate on the requests they’re handling and share best practice.
As well as those steps, we have been fortunate to be able to expand the IA team by approximately 50% from before the pandemic.
We recognise that not every public authority will find it possible to allocate more resource in the way that we did. However, seeing how we deployed staff and adopted new ways of working which did not require more staff should be helpful for other public authorities.
New processes included:
- producing weekly reports to identify overdue requests and those due within a fortnight – helping us identify cases where the officer managing the request might require support;
- introducing a tiering system to assess the likely complexity of a request, allowing us to allocate them to appropriate team members (3 tiers, tier 1 being most straightforward and tier 3 complex/time consuming);
- introducing a queue cap to limit the number of open requests a team member could work on at any one time (maximum of 15 requests for a fulltime team member; requests are counted as “open” while the handler waits for clarification, internal consultation responses, etc);
- establishing clear routes for escalating delayed internal consultation response on requests to senior management;
- increasing understanding of IA’s work across the ICO; and
- cooperating with the Communications team and other departments to identify planned activity likely to prompt information requests.
Initially compliance rates continued to drop, but the age profile of our caseload started to improve. We were closing difficult and significantly late requests in our backlog, but some of our newer cases were being issued late. After we reduced the backlog we started to see positive effects on our overall compliance rates.
This approach enabled us to return to 92% timeliness compliance and clear all our late cases by the end of June 2022.
Performance has continued to improve, and our timeliness compliance rate had risen to 99% by the end of July 2022.
We are also satisfied that by seconding colleagues in on a temporary basis, and supporting them well, we provided development opportunities for those staff.
“I’m very proud of the hard work of the team. Over the period of the recovery plan, they came together to really drive excellent performance and to return us to the service levels our customers rightly expect. The collaborative approach taken by the colleagues who joined us during this time, and the mentors who supported them, really made a huge difference. It was a great example of teams working flexibly to focus on an area of priority.”
- Louise Byers, Director of Corporate Planning, Risk and Governance.
“The support from colleagues in Information Access was excellent and made it possible for me to manage my own team while at the same time helping with the backlog of requests. I was able to discuss complex or novel cases with them to check that my advice was appropriate.”
- Iman El Mehdawy, Information Management and Compliance Group Manager, and mentor for IA secondees.
“We can become stuck in functional silos, and this was a great opportunity to learn what another area of the ICO does and how they work. What really impressed me was how everybody supported each other. In Information Access they have this session twice a week called ‘Request Queries’ where you can bring any issue relating to a case for group discussion. It’s amazing how much you can learn from being part of this.”
- Roxanne Stephen, IA secondee.