Archive for Resources

How to be an FOI Officer

FOIMan brings you his latest article for PDP – and news of a new training course for FOI Officers.

When I first worked as an FOI Officer back in 2003, setting up procedures and systems in the Greater London Authority, the biggest problem was that nobody  (in the UK at least) had done this before. There was some guidance available but broadly speaking every organisation had to make up its approach to FOI from scratch. Things have improved a bit since then, but a lot of FOI Officers are still making it up as they go along to a great extent.

One of the ways that can improve is through academic research. This year we’ve been blessed with not one, but two studies of FOI practices. One is focussed on London’s local authorities, and the other on councils throughout the UK. In my latest piece for the Freedom of Information Journal, I’ve summarised the findings of these important pieces of research.

Once again, I’ll be answering your questions about FOI in a future issue of the Freedom of Information Journal, so do drop me a line if there’s a subject you’d like me to address.

I’m also pleased to announce that my working relationship with PDP is expanding. Earlier this year I was honoured to accept an invitation to head up the exam board for PDP’s Freedom of Information Practitioner Certificate. And even more exciting than that…this Autumn we will be launching a new one-day course for FOI Officers, based on my recently published The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. The first dates for ‘The Role of The FOI Officer’ have been announced, beginning in London on 31 October, with subsequent courses running in Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast over the next year. If you’d like to discuss the best ways to manage and improve FOI performance, or want to more readily decipher decision notices, do please consider booking to join me on one of the days. Details of the course can be found on PDP’s website.

Don’t forget as well the other events I’ll be speaking at this Autumn, most of which are still taking bookings. I hope to see you there!

Free Chapter of The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook

FOIMan brings you a free chapter from his recently published book The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook.

Copies of The Freedom of Information Officer's HandbookI was thrilled last week to read a really positive review of my new book by Lynn Wyeth, Head of Information Governance at Leicester City Council (and well-known commenter on FOI and information rights matters) in the Freedom of Information Journal. She had lots of good things to say including:

What makes this book different to other books written about FOI is that it’s written by a practitioner for practitioners…

Describing it as a ‘desperately needed practitioners’ FOI bible’, Lynn finishes by saying:

Every FOI Officer should have a copy on their desk.

There are more reviews available on the Facet Publishing website if you are interested. I hope you’ll understand me drawing attention to these reviews: writing a book is a huge undertaking and a) given the work involved, it is heartwarming and (honestly) a relief to see such a positive reception, and b) I’d like as many people as possible to read it!

As an academic publisher, I understand that some will find Facet’s standard pricing of their output a little on the high side. I’ve been very conscious of this since first discussing the idea with them back in 2017. With this in mind, just a few things that I’m doing to try to ensure anyone who is interested can access at least some of its content:

Whether you’re studying for a qualification, need help with answering requests, or are just interested in FOI and access to information, I hope you’ll enjoy reading the free chapter provided here and perhaps the book itself.

FOIMan’s FOI Inbox

FOIMan answers your questions in the latest issue of the Freedom of Information Journal.

I recently put out a call to practitioners for their FOI problems with a view to featuring them (and my solutions) in one of my articles for the Freedom of Information Journal. You can now read the results in what I hope will be the first of a semi-regular feature: FOIMan’s FOI Inbox.

Problems posed in the first of these articles are:

  • when can small numbers be refused as personal data (if you shouted out ‘five or less’ or similar just now, you can do three laps of the sportsfield – rounded up to five, of course – right now…go on, off you go *folds arms, raises eyebrows, P.E. teacher-style*)?
  • do public authorities have to provide an email address to which FOI requests can be addressed?
  • how do you work out whether information in the possession of contractors is held for FOI purposes, especially when many contractual relationships are so complex?

Thanks to Gillian, Sarah and Mark for contributing the questions this time around. If you’re an FOI Officer struggling with any FOI or EIR issues, please do get in touch with myself or the FOI Journal editor and I’ll try to answer your query in print in a future issue.

What we don’t know

FOIMan explains why some truths we cling to about the UK’s FOIA are not quite what they seem.

A few months ago I was delivering some FOI training to a local authority (always available at competitive rates, folks!). I was explaining how far council officers were expected to go when searching for information to answer an FOI request. In particular I stated that if it was known that information had been deleted but still potentially existed on a backup, the backup should be searched.

The council’s FOI officer cautiously picked me up on my assertion. They had, they told me, had a written statement from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that contradicted me. So surely I was wrong?

The truth is that despite what we are often led to believe, there are some aspects of FOI law that are not certain. The legal system has not yet settled on the ‘right’ answer. This is the case when it comes to debates about information held on backups and whether it is considered held. In the example above, neither I nor the ICO are technically wrong; but then strictly speaking we’re not right either. We’re both interpreting the existing law, and both interpretations are arguable.

This is because English law revolves around the concept of precedent. But precedent can only be set by courts that make a decision beyond a certain stage. In a recent Upper Tribunal decision (LO v Information Commissioner, [2019] UKUT 34 (AAC) (29 January 2019)), Judge Jacobs was critical of the Information Commissioner for treating decisions of the First-Tier Tribunal (FTT) as ‘authoritative statements of the law’. Strictly speaking, they’re not. When it comes to backups, we only have rulings of the FTT to go on, so there is no definitive answer yet on that issue. Interestingly, on this issue, the ICO choose not to accept the FTT’s approach without question in their guidance.

My latest piece for PDP’s Freedom of Information JournalWhat we don’t know (which you can access here) – looks at this issue in more depth – looking at the backups query, but also a couple of other questions which have not yet been answered definitively – perhaps surprisingly. You’ll see that there are disputes between the ICO, the FTT and the s.45 Code of Practice which will only be resolved if those matters reach the Upper Tribunal. It ends by asking what questions you may have about FOIA or the EIRs – as I’ve mentioned before, we’d like to answer some of your conundrums in a future issue of the Journal.

FOI and Procurement

FOIMan explores how FOI and transparency rules interact with the process of procuring new goods and services by public authorities.

freedom-of-information-graphic-smallOne chapter that didn’t quite make it into my book due to lack of space and time was going to focus on the interaction between FOI and procurement processes (though of course the book still includes useful tips for dealing with requests about contracts). I’ve sought to redress this in my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal. You can, of course, subscribe to the journal, which contains lots of useful articles and the latest FOI news – details can be found opposite and at http://www.pdpjournals.com. However, you can also read the article here.

My next FOI journal piece will highlight what we don’t know about FOI – some of the ‘facts’ that we bandy around about the Act, but are not quite as set in stone as we might think…

By the way, we’re planning an experiment for a future issue of the journal. If there’s an FOI or EIR problem that you’ve never quite got to the bottom of and would like me to explore, let me know either directly or via PDP. I can’t promise to deal with every query submitted, but the aim is to answer a selection of queries in the article. If it works, we might just do it again. Even if you don’t subscribe to the journal, the eventual article will, as ever, be reproduced here. So if there’s something you don’t know about FOI, and think others might be puzzled by it too, drop me a line with ‘FOI Journal Q&A’ in the subject line and I’ll see what I can do.