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Commissioner launches new approach to resolve FOI appeals

Commissioner launches new approach to resolve FOI appeals

19 December 2023

Many of our service-users will be aware that we currently have a backlog of FOI appeal cases. This backlog has arisen as a result of pressures on our service during - and in the aftermath of - the Covid-19 pandemic.

Outlining the issue

The Commissioner currently has a backlog of approximately 200 appeal cases which are awaiting investigation. 

Alongside this backlog, the Commissioner continues to receive new appeals which, under our current procedures, are required to join this queue, with the result that our newly-received cases can currently take up to a year to be allocated to an investigator. 

This system creates challenges for everyone involved in the FOI appeal process.

  • For requesters - it means that the majority of our appeal cases are currently subject to undue delays. As a result, by the time a case is concluded there is, in a number of cases, a risk that any disclosed information will be out-of-date, or no longer relevant to the requester. 
  • For authorities – a significant delay in the investigation of cases can means that, once an investigation begins, the public authority staff who were involved in the original handling of the request may have moved to another role, or may have left the authority. The organisational memory which assists the progression of cases can therefore often be reduced.

The current system also causes challenges for our own office, as staff work to manage the case backlog, while also providing ongoing updates on the status of open cases.

Introducing our new strategy

In order to both address the backlog of FOI appeals and ensure that new cases are themselves not subject to extended delays, the Commissioner is adopting the following approach.

From 1 January 2024, we will split our appeal caseload into two separate workstreams, with two distinct teams responsible for progressing appeal cases.

Blue team cases

Cases received prior to 1 January 2024 date will be marked as ‘blue’ cases, and progressed by a newly-established, highly effective and experienced team. 

The ‘blue’ team’s responsibilities will include:

  • Reviewing and assessing all ‘blue’ (pre-January 2024) cases as soon as possible. 
  • Contacting requesters and public authorities to explore the current status of the appeal from the perspective of those parties. This may include:
    • For requesters – confirming that the requester has a live, ongoing interest in the information at the heart of the request. 
    • For authorities – exploring whether any withheld information retains the sensitivity it held at the time the request was made, or whether it may, for example, now be appropriate for disclosure, e.g. as a result of the passage of time. 

      It is anticipated that this activity may lead to the withdrawal of some of our cases, while others may be resolved through provision of previously-withheld information. (Where this is not possible, cases will progress in the usual way).
  • Identifying cases dealing with similar issues or themes, which can be conjoined to support faster resolutions.
  • Progressing all outstanding ‘blue’ cases as quickly as possible. 

2024 cases

The remainder of our investigative resource will be focussed on the progression of cases received on-or-after 1 January 2024. 

In this way we hope to ensure both the resolution of our older caseload, while also ensuring that, from 1 January 2024, all new cases can also be resolved as quickly as possible. 

Through this, we aim to ensure that requesters receive information which is important to them at a point where it has the most value and impact. 

Other measures being introduced to support the faster resolution of our live caseload include:

Focussing on a ‘right first time’ approach to appeal submissions, requiring public bodies to ensure that their initial submissions are as rigorous and comprehensive as possible, removing the need for lengthy and protracted follow-up correspondence around cases.

  • Streamlining our internal procedures and organisational templates to support the faster progression of cases.
  • Improving our internal communication systems to enable staff to discuss and resolve complex issues as quickly as possible.
  • Recruiting additional staff to the teams responsible for investigating FOI appeals, while temporarily expanding our decision-approval team to reduce potential bottlenecks in our approval process.

These measures will commence from 1 January 2024. If you have any further thoughts or suggestions which you feel would help our investigation system run more smoothly, we’d also be very interested to hear your ideas.

Get in touch at enquiries@itspublicknowledge.info