Home News

Holyrood Conference 2023: Workshop Report

Improving FOI Performance: Tips from Practitioners

Report from the ‘Improving FOI performance’ workshop at the 2023 Holyrood FOI Conference

Paul Mutch, Deputy Head of Policy and Information, Scottish Information Commissioner

How can Scotland’s public bodies improve their FOI performance? This question was at the heart of a recent ‘Improving FOI’ workshop at the 2023 Holyrood FOI Conference, which brought together three experienced FOI practitioners to discuss their own work to improve performance - sharing helpful solutions, tips and learning with conference delegates.

Our three practitioners came from across the public sector, with the one unifying feature being that they had each recently faced challenges meeting FOI timescales, in part due to wider organisational issues and challenges which had impacted on FOI performance. 

While, in each case, performance improvements came following intervention activity by the Commissioner, a clear lesson from the session was that many of the measures discussed may be implemented by any public body at any time, regardless of whether or not a formal intervention is underway. The tips below can therefore help organisations take pre-emptive action to address performance issues that could, if unchecked, result in future intervention activity by the Commissioner.

For each of our three organisations, many of the challenges faced were compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ripple effects that arose from a combination of resource challenges and increases in request volumes.

From local government, Falkirk Council’s Wendy Barber discussed the work done by her team which saw the Council’s on-time FOI response rate recover from 75% to 95% over a six-month period. Ann-Marie Noble from the University of Edinburgh spoke about the work done to restore their on-time performance rates, while also clearing a pandemic-related backlog of more than 200 requests.   

The Scottish Government’s Jill McPherson, meanwhile, discussed the recent restoration of Scottish Government on-time FOI performance to a rate of 95% or higher, in the wake of pandemic-related disruption to their network of FOI case-handlers and increases in request volumes. 

Some of the work done to drive FOI improvement included:

Allocation of staff resources

For each of our authorities, the allocation of additional staff resource was a factor in the improvement achieved. Where additional resources were allocated, this was either to staff teams with direct responsibility for FOI performance, or to areas or departments which were subject to high volumes of requests.

While waiting for new staff to take up post, the University of Edinburgh obtained additional support through secondments from an external legal firm, with secondees working alongside University staff to clear the request backlog and provide additional specialist support. 

Of course, decision-making around the allocation of staff resources will often be out of the hands of FOI practitioners, but our speakers also highlighted some routes through which the issues and challenges faced by FOI staff can be highlighted to senior managers, helping to make the case for additional resource, where required. This included...

Tracking, monitoring and reporting

The effective tracking, monitoring and reporting of FOI performance was identified by each of our speakers as a vital route to raise awareness at senior management level, and to support a case for additional resources, when necessary.

Each of our speakers noted that improvements to the quality of data being reported to senior managers brought real improvements in organisational awareness, enabling managers to be effectively alerted to successes, issues and risks. It was also felt that regular and consistent reporting helped to develop knowledge of FOI issues among senior colleagues over time. 

Both Falkirk Council and the Scottish Government reflected on improvements that had been made to the format of management reports, noting that a more visual and intuitive compliance dashboard helped to enhance engagement and understanding. 

Our speakers also reflected on benefits that had arisen from breaking down reporting to highlight and feedback on departmental performance, with reporting against targets introducing a healthy element of competition and benchmarking between business areas, helping to drive overall performance improvements. 

Senior management leadership

Each of our speakers noted that monitoring and reporting helped to raise awareness of FOI and related issues among senior managers, with speakers placing particular emphasis on the role that committed and focussed leadership had in supporting organisational-wide FOI commitment and compliance.

The Scottish Government discussed the leadership messages which were being disseminated across that organisation to support compliance and the development of a positive FOI culture. This included messaging around FOI-compliance being seen as a fundamental part of an official’s responsibilities and skillset, rather than something which was viewed as an additional add-on to a staff member’s ‘day job’. 

Falkirk Council also noted the positive impact of having FOI staff present performance reports directly and in-person to senior management, enabling any questions, issues or concerns to be discussed and explored in real time. This in turn helped develop knowledge and understanding of key issues across the organisation, building relationships and supporting the development of organisational-wide messaging around the importance of good FOI practice. 

The University of Edinburgh highlighted the benefit of ensuring that key issues, risks and solutions are raised with senior colleagues early, and are supported by relevant and reliable evidence, in order to build support for the implementation of effective organisational solutions. 

Organisation procedures

Our speakers reflected on changes they had each made to organisation procedures to support compliance. The University of Edinburgh, for example, discussed new measures put in place to enable straightforward requests to be dealt with locally by departments on receipt, speeding up the time taken to respond to such requests and freeing up key FOI staff to concentrate on more complex cases. 

Our speakers also discussed the importance of having effective escalation procedures in place, enabling requests to be quickly escalated through an established process when timescales are at risk of being missed.   

Staff training

Training was also a key tool for organisations with, for example, Falkirk Council discussing a range of staff training sessions which were implemented to build FOI-awareness across the organisation. Training was tailored to the specific requirements of individual audiences and their roles within the organisation, while also being focussed on guidance to bring improvements in areas where the organisation was facing particular challenges. 

Proactive publication

Benefits arising from the proactive publication of key information were also highlighted with, the University of Edinburgh noting that it was taking steps to proactively publish a range of frequently requested information, including information on the use of University counselling services, and data relating to admissions (which accounts for 10% of the University’s information requests).

Falkirk Council reflected that proactive publication also ensured that a range of key information was readily available to staff, as well as the wider public. The Council has also recently introduced a disclosure log - supported by a keyword search function – to help improve the accessibility and transparency of information at the heart of requests. 

Quick tips

Some other quick tips to improve performance shared by our speakers included:

  • Speak to the requester
    Don’t be scared to have a conversation with the requester to better understand what is being asked for – it can often help to narrow the request, leading to a quicker response and a lighter workload!
  • Don’t leave requests until week four
    Take some time following receipt of a request to ensure that you understand what is being looked for, and get the wheels in motion for a response. Late responses can often arise when requests turn out not to be as simple as they appeared at first glance! 
  • Where appropriate, think about batching requests
    To help deal with its backlog of requests, the University of Edinburgh batched requests on the same topic together to save time and create efficiencies. Batches were then sent to appropriate areas for a response, meaning that one set of data could be created to respond to multiple requests, and responses could be drafted together.
  • Set aside time to take stock
    Setting aside time for planning, or to focus on monitoring, training or other improvements can bring real benefits. It may sometimes feel that you don’t have time to do this, and urgent matters can often get in the way, but it brings real benefits and saves time in the long run.
  • Communicate with the Commissioner’s office
    If you are struggling with performance-related issues, get in touch with the Commissioner’s office . Let them know you’re aware of the issue and are working to address it, and gain advice on resources, strategies and guidance that can help. 

Want more tips from public bodies on improving performance? Read the report from our 2022 Holyrood Conference ‘Beat the Clock’ workshop , or find out about the experiences of the Scottish winners in the 2023 eCase FOI Awards.

The Commissioner’s self-assessment toolkit also provides guidance on how you can improve performance in a range of areas, including:

  • Responding on time
  • Searching for information
  • Providing advice and assistance
  • Publishing information
  • Conducting reviews
  • Monitoring and managing FOI performance