A new report published today (Wednesday, September 28) has found that most Scottish public authorities appear to be getting better at handling Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
The report, published by the Scottish Information Commissioner, reveals that less than 1% of the 68,000 FOI requests made in Scotland last year were appealed to the Commissioner.
The report also reveals that the number of appeals investigated by the Commissioner following an authority’s failure to respond to an FOI request fell significantly – from 94 in 2013/14 to 61 this year.
Speaking at the launch of her 2015/16 Annual Report, Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew said: “These signs of improvement in FOI performance are welcome. As my report demonstrates, the majority of information requests result in some or all of the information being disclosed. It is encouraging that only a very small proportion of requests are appealed. I’m also pleased that the number of appeals made about a failure to respond has fallen significantly following our work to tackle this issue.
“Unfortunately, our experience is that these improvements are not universal. There is still a clear gap between the best performing authorities and those who lag behind. As you will see from my report, my focus still lies in promoting good practice and intervening when I find poor practice.”
The Commissioner’s 2015/16 Annual Report reveals that:
540 appeals were made to the Commissioner in 2015/16. This is a 14% increase on last year, but is down from 578 appeals two years ago.
The number of “failure to respond” appeals fell significantly in 2015/16. The Commissioner accepted 61 “failure to respond” cases for investigation. This was 16% of her investigation caseload – a significant reduction on the 25% three years ago.
Appeals volumes fell for some sectors. Most notably for the Scottish Government and its agencies, where appeals fell from 23% of the Commissioner’s caseload in 2014/15 to 15% this year (from 111 appeals to 84).
Appeal volumes increased for others. Appeals in relation to non-departmental public bodies increased, from 6% of the Commissioner’s caseload in 2014/15 to 10% this year. This was largely due to an increase in Scottish Fire and Rescue Service appeals, from one in 2014/15 to 12 this year.
There was also a significant increase in appeals about requests made to Police Scotland. They rose from 9% of appeals last year to 15% in 2015/16 (from 45 to 81 appeals). 3% of Police Scotland’s information requests resulted in an appeal, compared to a national average of 0.8%.
61% of appeals came from members of the public. The media accounted for 20% of appeals, and prisoners 7%.
60% of the Commissioner’s decisions found wholly or partially in the requester’s favour. If an authority has incorrectly withheld information, the Commissioner’s decision will require it to be released.
73% of cases were resolved by the Commissioner within four months.
Public authorities reported receiving 68,156 information requests in 2015/16. This is a 2% increase on 2014/15. Figures are reported in a publicly-available database set up by the Commissioner. The portal data also shows that 75% of requests resulted in some or all of the requested information being provided, and that public authorities themselves are reporting 35% fewer ‘failures to respond’ to information requests since 2014/15.
Public awareness of FOI is at its highest ever level, at 85%. This is up from 84% last year, and 78% in September 2013.
FOI awareness is lower amongst 16-24 year olds. Ipsos MORI polling also revealed lower awareness amongst young people. The Commissioner is working in partnership with Young Scot to address this lower awareness.
Rosemary Agnew added: “We are also conscious of how important it is we perform well. We appreciate that it is frustrating for requesters, who have already had to wait for several months, if our investigations are unnecessarily protracted. It can also be stressful for authorities who have to wait for the outcome of our investigations. When someone has to appeal, we work hard to resolve the issue quickly, with 73% of our cases taking no more than four months, and 60% of our decisions finding wholly or partly in the requester’s favour. The focus now must be on making it work even better at every stage.”
The Commissioner’s full Annual Report and Accounts for 2015/16 is available at: www.itspublicknowledge.info/AnnualReport201516