Centre for Freedom of Information Annual Practitioners’ Conference
The annual Conference ran on the 24 of August 2022, with a record number of attendees participating and engaging in discussion on the role of FOI professionals in implementing Scotland's information legislation.
With the conclusion of the Centre for Freedom of Information Annual Practitioners’ Conference on Wednesday 24 August 2022, a sufficient amount of time has passed to reflect on this year’s Conference. The Centre for Freedom of Information and the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner was happy to see such a large number of attendees at this year’s Conference, and that the topics raised by the presenters generated interesting and valuable discussions. While the Conference covered a range of important matters, three topics, in particular, arose during the Conference presentations and discussions and are worth highlighting here.
The first of these topics was the skills and knowledge required to effectively engage with, and process requests made under, the relevant freedom of information legislation. This was an explicit focus of many of this Conference’s workshops, focussing on manifestly unreasonable or vexatious requests, the “requester-blind” principle and (re-)introducing practitioners to the structure and provisions of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Such skills are necessary for the most visible work done by Freedom of Information Officers (FOI Officers) and keeping up-to-date with new developments in law and good practice is key to continuing the excellent work done by FOI Officers.
The second topic centred around the development of FOI Officers as a profession. As highlighted in Paul Gibbons and Ross McEwen’s presentations, part of this is the important role that FOI Officers play in successfully implementing freedom of information legislation – without this expertise, public authorities often fail in successfully guaranteeing fundamental information rights. Yet the idea of professionalism also encapsulates the ability of FOI Officer to contribute to other functions and decisions within their public authority. It is important to recognise this aspect of the FOI Officer role or there is a risk, as noted by Lynn Wyeth in her workshop, of FOI Officers underplaying their own significance.
All of this culminated in a discussion as to what shape a “Freedom of Information Officer” profession might take in the future. Andrew MacQueen’s presentation set out the various definitions of what could constitute professionalism, and how this can apply to FOI Officers. Carole Ewart’s workshop, on the future of FOI(S)A and the upcoming FOI(S)A Bill, also noted the importance of the FOI Officer as a profession and discussed a potential statutory role for FOI Officers. In constructing the “profession” of FOI Officer, attendees highlighted the need to ensure that such a profession did not exclude those already working as FOI Officers and non-graduates wanting to enter the public service.
The third and final topic related to the proactive disclosure of information and the operation of proactive disclosure mechanisms. This method of information disclosure is an important avenue by which the public can obtain information from public authorities yet is ill-defined in the legislation and not wholly considered in the subsequent guidance. Carole Ewart highlighted that in the upcoming FOI(S)A Bill there would be a legal duty to proactively disclose information, and Terna Waya updated the workshop’s attendees on the work being done by the Scottish Information Commissioner to replace the outdated requirement to publish and implement a publication scheme. These developments suggest that proactive disclosure will become more significant in the work of FOI Officers, which in turn may further cement their importance within their organisations.
The theme which underpins these topics is the importance of freedom of information and FOI Officers – as discussed by Daren Fitzhenry in the final plenary session. With the developments in information law and policy being debated, the Conference concluded with a discussion on the importance of FOI Officers working together to support each other and to highlight their significance within their own organisations. This can be done through individual efforts, or with the support of networking groups such as the Scottish Public Information Forum and other networking groups (email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
Ultimately, the Conference covered a range of important topics and issues, and we hope that the attendees found the Conference to be useful in furthering their own thinking and in helping them with their responsibilities.
The Conference Programme and the presentations
Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland Session
Freedom of information, and information law generally, is an ever-changing and complex series of rights, obligations and legislative regulations. However the pace of change can be slow and an example of civil society leading change is the Freedom of Information (Scotland) (No.2) Bill, which seeks to reform certain aspects of the current Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOI(S)A).
Noting the importance of this Bill as it is debated on, the Centre for Freedom of Information has invited Carole Ewart author of the Bill, Convenor and Chief Officer of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, to discuss the current operation of FOI(S)A, as well as how the Bill seeks to reform FOI(S)A to better guarantee the right to access information and cement the role of Freedom of Information Officers in Scotland. The campaign is continuing and it has been announced that an MSP will ‘adopt’ the CFoIS Bill and progress legal reform of FoISA through a member’s Bill at the Scottish Parliament.
Morning Plenary Session
- Paul Gibbons FOI Officers Their Value and Influence
- Ross McEwen FOI Officers Value & Influence
- Andrew MacQueen Professionalism, DPOs and FOI Officers
Workshop Session A
- Lynn Wyeth A Recipe for Success for FOI in Local Government
- Terna Waya Insights from FOI Practitioners’ Survey
- Fiona Killen Handling Vexatious or Manifestly Unreasonable Requests
- Carole Ewart The Future of FOI What Needs to Change
Workshop Session B
Dr Sean Whittaker
Centre for Freedom of Information