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The time is right to improve our access to information

The time is right to improve our access to information

by Daren Fitzhenry, 28 September 2021

What part does FOI play in supporting our recovery from the events of the last 18 months and helping us face the challenges of the future?

This question is at the heart of UNESCO Access to Information Day, which this year features a series of events exploring the role of access to information in building back stronger, more accountable public institutions. The programme highlights the role that strong FOI laws and robust implementation play in developing relationships of trust between citizens and the state, helping to ensure resilience in times of crisis.

In Scotland two Scottish Government consultations planned for later this year provide an opportunity to take this agenda forward.

These consultations will review FOI law following the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament's post-legislative scrutiny of FOI, and, separately, consider next steps in the extension of FOI to additional bodies that provide public services. Together, they present an opportunity to improve and update FOI law in response to changes in the way public services are provided, the technologies we use, and the ways in which we work, as well as in response to lessons learned from the pandemic. We look forward to engaging with these discussions, and actively encourage everyone with an interest in improving transparency, accountability and engagement to make sure their voices are heard.

For FOI to be fully effective, of course, any changes to law must be supported by changes in organisational culture and practice. Encouragingly, there are some signs that recent challenges are contributing to cultural change. Case studies shared at last month's FOI Practitioners' Conference suggest a heightened awareness of the role of information in building public trust, while our own research found that public bodies reported publishing more information during the pandemic.

But proactive publication is only one aspect of FOI, and people continue to use their rights to go beyond the published data. This has led to requests on the impact of lockdown on childhood eating disorders, waiting times for social care-related home alterations and the number of deaths in care homes, along with those exploring measures to ensure safety in schools and the impact of the pandemic on human rights-based decision making. The information disclosed supports public understanding and informs debate, helping individuals and organisations recognise, prioritise and address the challenges we face.

UNESCO Access to Information Day aims to support the development of transparent, accountable and inclusive institutions that serve the public good. We should all make the most of the opportunities this year to enhance Scotland's performance in this vitally important area.