Working with Freedom of Information, five years on

Cranfield School of Management

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Working with Freedom of Information, five years on
By Hazel Woodward and Mary Betts-Gray

For the past five years, the Freedom of Information act (FOI) has placed new responsibilities for disclosure on public organisations, such that public organisations must be responsive to requests for information concerning the business of that organisation. The act applies to some 100,000 public authorities such as the NHS, police, schools, central and local government. This article gives a personal perspective on the experiences of an organisation living with freedom of information legislation. We’ll review what subjects we have found that are frequently asked, who asks for that information, and in what form the information is requested. We’ll also explore how many requests have been made to us and how we have responded. We conclude with questions that organisations should be considering in the light of the way FOI is developing.

Firstly, some basics: what constitutes a freedom of information request? The act specifies that the request must be in writing and that it can come from anywhere in the world. It doesn't need to be called a freedom of information request; it can be connected with anything about the business of the organisation. In the University's case, there is a special Freedom of information e-mail address (foi@cranfield.ac.uk). Some information covered under the Data Protection Act can't be provided , for example, if it's personal information. FOI requests require a quick turnaround-20 working days in which to respond. This can sometimes prove challenging, but we have always met the deadline. No reasons for the request can be asked. There are some specific exemptions. Examples of information covered under the exemptions are: information intended for future publication; personal information about another person; where commercial interests would be prejudiced; information available from another source; or personal information about an applicant. Any refusal must be given in writing and can be appealed.

We have found some requests come from identifiable sources, journalists, pressure groups, commercial companies, trade unions, individuals including researchers, staff and students. Examples of information requests include:

  • ICT expenditure
  • Defence funding and investment
  • Violence against staff
  • Animal experimentation
  • Library fines
  • Numbers of visas and students who had turned up
  • Cost of printing prospectus, developing website
  • Empty commercial and residential properties
  • Vice-chancellor’s remuneration

The type of information requested varies enormously, but includes: contract details; minutes of meetings; financial information such as salaries, expenditure, and income; e-mails and correspondence between staff on a particular topic; and information on research.

How many requests have been made?

In total over 5 years, 182 requests have been made, but this has been sharply increasing, so that in the last year a third of all these requests have been made and requests are also becoming more complex. How have we responded? 70% of the responses have provided full or partial information. Some requests (9%) were withdrawn or not followed up, another 9% had no information to disclose, 8% were declined, and 4% were referred to the website. All responses have been made within the 20 working days’ limit. Three requests have gone to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and several have been referred for internal review.

Implications of high-profile judgments

As a result of decisions taken by the ICO, case law is beginning to develop. Three judgements have had particular impact within the HE sector:

  • University of Central Lancashire was required to release teaching material
  • University of East Anglia were criticised for deleting climate change e-mails after an FOI request had been made
  • Queen's University Belfast was required to release a longitudinal survey of tree ring data.

Lessons for public sector organisations

Transparency seems here to stay. We need to recognise it as part and parcel of the way public organisations must operate in the future. The time is now right to consider how FOI has affected your organisation and whether you need to reassess the way you deal with information internally and externally.

Key Questions for public sector managers

  • Have you reviewed your policy and practice towards dealing with information?
  • Does your organisation have a records management policy?
  • Have you considered the implications of multi-media, new social media and information flows?
  • The volume of requests seem to be on the increase; what does this mean for your organisation?
  • Are your staff aware that they should refer information requests to the freedom information officer as soon as possible?
  • Do they know who that person is?
  • Are your staff aware that e-mail correspondence can be requested and must be provided?

Hazel Woodward is Cranfield University Librarian and Director of Cranfield University Press. Mary Betts-Gray is a Business Information Specialist/Freedom of Information Officer at the University.

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