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Guest Blog: A Recipe for Success for FOI

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has been in operation for the last 16 years. You would hope by now that public authorities were answering requests in compliance with the law, but we saw only recently yet another story about a local authority failing to answer FOI requests in a timely manner.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, our national regulator for FOI, requires public authorities to answer 90% of requests in the required timescales, but how can organisations ensure that they meet this target consistently? My current research, looking at FOI regimes of practice in English local government has identified some of the different strands that, when pulled together, combine to make a recipe for success.

The People. Driving most successful FOI regimes is a passionate FOI officer. They can improve performance even when resources are scarce. They have the necessary skills and knowledge to drive improvement and, most importantly, the desire to do so. They learn on the job, often with no legal background, but often deny their abilities and agency.

The Place. Where does FOI sit within an organisation? It’s often moved around departments and no-one seems quite sure where it should be. We see it in Legal Services, Customer Services, the Chief Executive’s Office, Communications or IT. Where is the best fit and does it actually matter where it sits for it to be a success?

The Process. Over the years many local authorities have moved from a decentralised model where individual service areas dealt with their own requests - with varying levels of compliance - to centralisation of request management. The central performance management system not only helps with timeliness compliance but also quality of responses and correct application of exemptions.

The Technology. Different local authorities use different systems for managing requests. Ranging from a simple Excel spreadsheet to an all-singing, all-dancing specialist FOI service that automatically reminds people when responses are due and even redacts requests and publishes to a disclosure log, technology can definitely help manage the process and make it more efficient… if it’s used well.

The Reporting. FOI is often overlooked whilst things are going well. Very often reports go up to senior management… but nothing comes down. There is little or no feedback, unless there is a problem. Regular reporting can, however, raise the profile of the service, get buy in from management, and highlight risks before it goes wrong.

The Communities of Practice. How does the lone FOI officer in a council keep their knowledge up to date and get to hear of any best practice? Some communities of practice have emerged through regional support groups or national mailing lists and online fora, usually driven by FOI officers themselves, but new FOI officers may struggle to find these networks which can often be invaluable support to them.

We’ll be discussing all of the above in more detail and looking at what contributes to successful FOI practice at the the upcoming webinar.

Register for 'A Recipe for Success in FOI'

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About Lynn Wyeth

Lynn Wyeth is the Head of the Information Governance function and the Data Protection Officer of a large unitary public authority and has over 15 years' experience as a Freedom of Information practitioner. She holds a post graduate diploma in Information Rights and the CISMP certificate, the Data Protection BCS ISEB and the Freedom of Information BCS ISEB, and is an accredited HSCIPP privacy practitioner. Lynn’s current team won the Information and Records Management Society Team of the Year award in 2018.

Lynn is the author of 2 books, A Practical Guide to Handling Freedom of Information Requests, and Data Protection: Compliance in Practice. She has contributed a chapter to the book 'Freedom Fighters or Lazy Journalism: Critical reflections on freedom of information' edited by John Mair and Tom Felle.

Lynn is a Chair and regular speaker at national conferences on information governance matters, as well as running training for several IG training companies as well as her own company.

Lynn advised the Government of Jersey on the implementation of FOI legislation on the island. She also sits on the examination board of PDP’s FOI journal and is currently undertaking a PhD on Freedom of Information at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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