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"A highlight in the calendar" - online conference showcases the resilience of FOI practitioners

"A highlight in the calendar" - online conference showcases the resilience of FOI practitioners

by Joe Chapman, Policy Officer, 08 September 2021

The first ever online Centre for FOI Practitioners' Conference took place on 24 and 25 August 2021 and was attended by more than 120 delegates and speakers, from 60 organisations.

The conference is hosted by the University of Dundee's Centre for Freedom of Information. Each year, the Commissioner's team supports the conference by helping to shape the programme and hosting workshops, and we were delighted to have the opportunity again in 2021.

The conference thrives in its unique role in bringing FOI staff from across Scotland together in one place, and this year's online version was no exception, with attendees welcoming the long-awaited opportunity to learn from others and gain a better understanding of the broader issues relating to their work. The event was also attended by others with an interest in FOI, including academics and campaigners in Scotland and further afield.

While the importance of transparency has become clearer than ever, those working in FOI have had to adapt to changes in ways of working and the legislation itself. This year's theme of "Resilience" aimed to reflect on the past 18 months and look forward to other developments expected in the near future.

The programme was split into two half days, each of which featured keynote presentations followed by two rounds of 45-minute interactive workshops. As well as fitting the theme, this format was also aimed at making the online event experience more enjoyable for attendees, maximising interaction and avoiding screen fatigue. Feedback suggests this approach was well-received.

Looking back and looking forward

Day 1 provided an opportunity for practitioners to share their experiences of FOI in 2020 and hear how others across Scotland fared. It's clear that FOI staff in different authorities had differing experiences of the pandemic due to a range of factors including the type and size of authority, trends in the volume of requests received, and their organisation's readiness for remote working.

Snap polls conducted during two of the workshops suggested a roughly 50-50 split between those authorities which did and those which did not need to make major changes to working practices in response to the first lockdown, while only around 1 in 4 made use of the extended FOI timescales resulting from the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act.

The main challenges faced by FOI staff included the reduction or loss of contact with staff across their organisation, as well as initial limitations in access to the systems and software normally relied upon. On the other hand, the circumstances led to a heightened appreciation of the role and value of FOI, particularly the proactive publishing of information.

With an eye to the future, the Commissioner's team shared their 'top 10' learning points from the impact of Covid-19 on FOI. A central theme of this session was that while new systems and ways of working have allowed FOI to continue, they have also created new issues in relation to retaining, identifying and accessing relevant information. Another key message was the value of maintaining good communication internally and externally, including providing advice and assistance.

Learning from each other

However, although it was important to explore issues around the impact of the pandemic on FOI, there was a sense throughout the conference that practitioners were keen to focus on the future, and any tips for continuous improvement. Presentations on day 2 were therefore particularly popular, including Lynn Wyeth's "Recipe for Success", which looked at the varied backgrounds of FOI officers, the skills required for the role, and their position and status within organisations.

This year's Practitioners' Conference also featured case studies by individual Scottish public authorities, including FOI improvement projects carried out over recent months. The case study speakers were honest about the negatives as well as emphasising the positives, and above all offered lessons to learn or examples to follow that many of those attending can benefit from.

Delegates also enjoyed the opportunity to hear about and input into the Commissioner's proposals for a future proactive publication duty, and there was a lively discussion about current and future support and resources for FOI staff provided by the Commissioner's team.

An outcome of that session as well as the overall conference feedback was a desire for detailed training and advice on specific aspects of managing FOI - complementing the online briefings and learning points from decisions - including what to do and what not to do when considering applying particular exemptions.

Online or in person?

The virtual format of this year's Practitioners' Conference prompts the question of whether future editions should be held online or in person. Delegate feedback suggests a majority in favour of online, but there are pros and cons to each option.

This year's conference had a much larger attendance than normal, including many who would be unable to travel to the usual venue in Dundee, while in-person events generally involve greater time, cost and environmental impacts. However, it's clear that delegates missed the informal and spontaneous networking and discussion, and fewer distractions, of a face-to-face event.

Whatever the format, it seems that future conferences will be popular, with 94% of attendees this year recommending the conference to others with an interest in FOI. Our thanks go to the team at the University of Dundee who organised and hosted the event, to all those who kindly agreed to be a speaker or facilitator, and to everyone who attended. See you again soon!