Archive for Training Courses

Practically speaking

FOI Man explains that being an FOI Officer is all about the practical.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to take part in a panel discussion at City University about the Justice Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of FOI. After each of us had said our piece, we got to my favourite part of these kind of events – questions from the audience. And one student journalist asked whether it was right that FOI Officers often shared details of requests from journalists with Press Officers in their organisations. Wasn’t it wrong that FOI Officers should feel an obligation to work with the spin doctors?

There is obviously a debate around how closely FOI Officers should work with Press Officers on FOI requests. But the thrust of my response was that FOI Officers DO have an obligation to their organisation. We do a job. Our organisations pay our wages.  Whilst many FOI Officers do take a principled approach to their work, ultimately they have to do what their employer tells them.

One of the principal aims of this blog when I started it was to talk about FOI from the perspective of the practitioner. And FOI from the practitioner’s perspective is very much a practical exercise. Hopefully it is clear from the way I write that I am a supporter of FOI and increasing openness in the public sector and beyond. But fundamentally I have to make FOI work on a day-to-day basis. That isn’t always easy.

And recently I’ve been running a training course for Act Now Training where we’ve explored what it really means to be an FOI Officer. What are the practical skills that an FOI Officer needs?

The obvious thing is knowledge of the legislation, and that technical side of the role gets plenty of attention. What needs to go into a response? How do you refuse vexatious requests? Where do you go for help?

Before we can even begin to answer requests, we need to know how to arm our organisations with the right IT systems, get our websites FOI-friendly, and ensure that records are being well managed. On the course we discuss the pros and cons of disclosure logs. Can they help reduce the volume of FOI requests or do they provoke more?

But the part of the course that gets us most animated is when we look at dealing with scepticism from colleagues. Every FOI Officer has encountered resistance from time to time, and to me, knowing how to deal with that is probably the most important part of the job. Most of the time opposition to FOI within public bodies is not about any strong political opposition to the legislation. It’s about ordinary people who care as much about their job as we FOI Officers do about ours. Or journalists do about theirs. To persuade them to adjust their priorities is a matter of patience and diplomacy. When we’re at our best!

If you’re an FOI Officer and want to go back to basics, or just explore the different aspects of your role with fellow practitioners, I’ll be running Practical FOI once more this year in a couple of weeks’ time on 16 November in London. And there will be more next year if you can’t make that date.

Practical FOI Man and Other News

FOI Man talks about his course on Practical FOI, calling FOI Officers to arms and other developments.

First off – an apology. I like to provide something new here every week if I can, but lately that just hasn’t been possible. But I haven’t been neglecting the world of FOI. So what have I been up to?

Well, for one thing, I’ve been following avidly the exploits of the Justice Committee. As others have noted, the SaveFOI campaign attempted to get me in front of the Committee but to no avail. Still, at least they have my written evidence. I haven’t had time to write a review of the post-legislative scrutiny evidence as yet, but the questioning of some members of the Committee appeared to suggest that a recommendation to charge for FOI requests is a distinct possibility. If you, like me, think that would be a most unwelcome step, you can register your disapproval, if you haven’t already done so, by signing the SaveFOI e-petition. And do keep checking the SaveFOI website – it is regularly updated with new blog posts and other material of interest to anyone who follows FOI developments (even if you don’t wholly subscribe to SaveFOI’s view of things).

But most of my time has been taken up as a result of a number of very kind invitations to speak at events. In April, the UCL Constitution Unit asked me to say a few words on my experience and views of FOI in higher education at a seminar they organised to discuss the results of their own research. You can see my slides, together with the initial findings of the Unit’s research, on their website if you’re interested (in the ‘Outputs’ section).

Last week, alongside such luminaries of the FOI world as Tim Pitt-Payne (Barrister with 11KBW and writer at Panopticon), Tom Steinberg (the man behind WhatDoTheyKnow.com and member of the Government’s Transparency Board) and Jonathan Baines (of Buckinghamshire County Council and Information Rights and Wrongs fame), I spoke at PDP’s annual FOI Conference. My theme was the role of FOI Officers in promoting FOI within their organisations. After all, if we don’t, who will?

Next month, on 18 June, I’ll be talking on the same issue at a seminar organised by the National Association of Data Protection and FOI Officers (NADPO). See their website for more details.

And last but not least, the highly persuasive Mr Ibrahim Hasan, of Act Now Training, asked me to develop and present a training course called Practical FOI.

Practical FOI is basically a one-day course on “How to be an FOI Officer”! I’ll explain how to build up expertise in FOI, using available resources. I’ll strip back records management to take away the fear. We’ll look at what methods work best for logging and monitoring FOI requests. And how do you deal with senior managers who don’t see the point of this FOI-nonsense? It’s all about the nuts and bolts of making FOI work for your organisation.

If you’re interested in my Practical FOI course, it will be running on 11 June and 16 November in London, and 22 June and 26 October in Manchester. Further details are available from Act Now Training.

And if you’re one of the few people interested in FOI in the UK who hasn’t seen me speak by the end of this summer, don’t despair! I’ll be back to regular blogging right here very soon.