Tag Archive for local authorities

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!

London councils: how good are they at FOI?

FOIMan highlights a new report from the Campaign for FOI on good practice – and whether London councils are meeting it.

The Campaign for FOI has conducted research into the way London local authorities meet their FOI obligations – and has found a mixed picture. They found that:

  • whilst some councils answered almost all requests within 20 working days in 2017-18, three quarters of them failed to meet the ICO’s expectation of 90% answered on time, and seven councils answered on time less than 70% of the time
  • some councils even ignored the ICO’s interventions
  • a third of councils did not publish FOI stats as of December 2018, and very few councils publish figures on refusals
  • four councils do not publish an email address that applicants can use to make requests, instead insisting that requests are submitted via a form, and half of councils do not publish a telephone number so that applicants can ask for advice
  • two-thirds of London councils do not have a disclosure log
  • some councils reported having no internal guidance on FOI, and only a handful published their guidance on their website
  • some council guidance contained errors such as suggesting that staff could charge applicants.

The report makes 14 recommendations including quarterly publication of statistics (which is in any case what is required now under the new s.45 code), that the ICO be clear with authorities that they could face enforcement action, that stats, internal guidance and disclosure logs be published, and that authorities be more helpful to applicants. The full report can be read via the Campaign for FOI’s website (and you may want to consider donating to the Campaign if you find the report interesting).

If you’re working for a council and struggling with FOI, you will find The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook addresses all of these issues. You can, of course, also get in touch for training and for help with revising FOI policies and procedures – if that’s of interest, drop me a line.

FOI in English Local Authorities in 2016

FOIMan summarises the results of research into the numbers of FOI requests that local authorities in England received in 2016.

The new s.45 code of practice requires all public authorities to publish data on their FOI performance, but that hasn’t always been required. Outside of central government, the availability of reliable data on FOI request volumes is patchy to say the least.

Local government is reputed to receive the most FOI requests of all public authorities. Between 2005 and 2011, the Constitution Unit at UCL carried out valuable research into FOI in local government, including request volumes. The reports on their research can be found on the UCL website.

Since the 2011 report (on 2010), there hasn’t been any comprehensive data available on FOI volumes in local government in England (to my knowledge). As regular readers will know, I conducted some research into FOI in local government as part of the preparation for my book The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. In Autumn 2017, I wrote to a sample of councils across the country and asked them a number of questions. Amongst those questions I asked for the number of requests received in 2016 and the number of those requests answered in 20 working days.

In my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal I have reported on the results of these questions, and compared them to UCL’s research to examine the trends in council request volumes. It will come as no surprise to learn that request volumes appear to have continued to rise over that period.

If you want to read more about the outcomes of my research, other aspects (including how requests are managed and how performance is monitored) are explored in detail in The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook which will be published at the beginning of January 2019 by Facet Publishing. Details of how to order a copy at a discount can be found at the top of the sidebar opposite.

Local Authority Meetings & Secrecy

FOIMan clarifies the relationship between FOI and local authority meeting rules.

Following the awful tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower, there have been a lot of questions asked of the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). Yesterday (29 June 2017) the council held a Cabinet meeting which began and ended in controversial circumstances. I was subsequently asked by a follower on Twitter about the relationship between FOI and attendance at council meetings.

The short answer is that there is none. FOI gives a right of access to information held by public authorities. It doesn’t regulate access to meetings.

The longer and more helpful answer is that FOI forms part of a range of legal requirements that ensure that local authorities like RBKC are accountable. I’ve written previously about transparency rules in local government. In relation to meetings of the RBKC cabinet, the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 are, I believe, the relevant rules. I won’t go into whether RBKC were entitled to exclude the media from the meeting in this case as a) I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, and b) it’s already been dealt with by a legal ruling which ruled that the Press had to be admitted. But if you’re interested in what the rules are, the regulations I mention above may be of interest to you.

From my point of view, one of the most interesting issues is that RBKC are the latest organisation to discover that the perception of secrecy can be just as damaging, if not more so, as the revelation of embarrassing information (interestingly a theme explored by Dr Ben Worthy in his recent book on The Politics of FOI, which I thoroughly recommend). As one MP in their maiden speech said:

The public has the right…to know what its elected representatives are doing…Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action.

The MP was Margaret Thatcher, and she said this in 1960 in support of a Bill to allow the Press to attend council meetings.

(HT to Alan Travis of The Guardian – @alantravis40 – for providing the quote above from Hansard in a Tweet yesterday)

Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems

FOIMan reviews the current regulatory state of Town Hall Transparency.

I declare this meeting open!

I declare this meeting open!

Freedom of Information (FOI) regularly receives a bad press from public authorities, and in particular from the Local Government Association, who like to highlight “wacky” FOI requests (which, as others have made clear, may not in actual fact be that wacky). The funny thing is though, a cursory glance at local authority transparency regulation makes it pretty clear that FOI is the least of town halls’ worries.

I was recently asked to provide training in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations  2014. Now, in all honesty it’s quite some time since I worked in a local authority, so whilst I was aware of the regulations in a very broad sense, I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time researching the current scope of local government transparency requirements. Once I had delved a little deeper I began to wonder why FOI attracted all the ire.

The Openness Regs are just the tip of a large and glassy iceberg. The bit that got most people’s attention when they were launched by DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles earlier this year was the requirement on councils to allow local people to film council meetings. In fact, the regulations also add to the growing list of information that DCLG expects local authorities to publish.

Just this year we’ve seen a new Transparency Code which for the most part is now mandatory in England. English councils have to publish details of staff members earning over £50,000; contracts over £5,000; time spent on trade union activities; all council property; grants to various organisations; how much they collect in parking fines; and much else besides. They’re encouraged to adopt the Open Government Licence for all this, so that people can download it and use it however they see fit.

Since the mid-1980s, councils have been expected to allow the public access to papers of their meetings – agenda, minutes, reports. Until recently this just meant allowing them to pick up copies from council offices. But more recent legislation means that papers relating to executive meetings must also be published on the local authority website (“if it has one” – cue councils up and down the country rushing to dismantle their internet connection). “Key” decisions must be advertised 28 days in advance, as must matters that are to be discussed in private. The decisions taken by members and officers under executive powers must be published, and now, through the Openness Regs, the same is true of many decisions taken by council officers under delegated powers. They must also publish “background papers” that were used in reaching the decision.

You may be thinking that this is still very different from the obligations under FOI though. People can’t request that papers be sent to them. Except they can – as long as they’re prepared to pay for photocopying, printing and postage, the regulations of the last couple of years require the council to provide the copies. Bear in mind that public authorities can charge the same for information released under FOI. The similarities don’t end there. Just as it is a criminal offence to block access to information requested under FOI, council officers can find themselves facing a charge if they attempt to stop you accessing council meeting papers.

The good news is that if councils comply with these requirements, they won’t have to answer FOI requests – most of the time – for the same information. Section 21 of FOI provides an exemption where information is already reasonably accessible to the requester, and this applies in situations where an existing legal requirement provides access. Councils can even refuse to provide the information in a format specified by the requester unless the requester’s situation – for example, a disability – means that the information is not reasonably accessible to them in the published format.

So even if FOI was abolished tomorrow, town halls up and down the country would still find themselves having to publish significant volumes of information, and perhaps even having to answer requests. In the meantime, as the end of FOI does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment, town hall transparency can at least save them some work in answering FOI requests as well as keeping Mr Pickles at bay (not to mention avoiding some embarrassing judicial review outcomes).

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about my in-house training in Local Government Transparency.