Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

ICO promises 'proactive', higher impact regulation of FOI laws

Out-Law News | 16 Jan 2019 | 10:33 am | 2 min. read

Public sector bodies in the UK face more intense scrutiny of their compliance with freedom of information (FOI) laws under new plans outlined by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

In a new draft access to information strategy (15-page / 267KB PDF), the ICO acknowledged that there are some concerns over how public sector organisations currently approach their obligations under FOI legislation and environmental information regulations. To address this, it set out its ambition to "be more proactive and increase the impact of our regulation of access to information legislation" over the next three years.

"We recognise that the performance of some public authorities in relation to the timeliness of their responses to information requests and overall levels of openness are not as high as we want or what citizens expect," the ICO said in its draft strategy.

"We have listened to the calls for the Information Commissioner’s Office to do more to raise standards and reinforce confidence in access to information rights. This draft strategy aims to set out our revised approaches and reflects the renewed commitment by the information commissioner to take a more robust, risk-based approach as set out in her regulatory action policy. We will do this through making proportionate use of all our regulatory tools, from education, advice, support and guidance through to the use of our enforcement powers," it said.

According to the draft strategy, the ICO will seek "improvements to openness and transparency" by, among other things, increasing the impact of its enforcement activity under the FOI Act "through targeting of systemic non-compliance".

The ICO also plans to develop a toolkit to help public bodies improve their information handling practice and openness, and said it will "assess the feasibility" of it undertaking ‘openness’ or ‘transparency’ impact assessments and audits as part of a new "advisory service" it could provide.

Over the next three years, the ICO said it would work with technology experts, experts in FOI laws and other stakeholders to "scope and publish a technology review to shine a light on how public authorities are using technology in relation to searches for information".

It also plans to "promote new digital approaches to proactive disclosure of information", including "open data opportunities".

The ICO said it also intends to continue to champion modernisation of information rights legislation to ensure "it remains fit for purpose". Reforms it has endorsed before include bringing more outsourced public services within the scope of the FOI regime and the introduction of a new 'duty to document'.

A new report will be submitted to the UK parliament before the end of this month by the ICO which will include "recommendations for change in relation to outsourced public services and some other categories of public service provision that are not within the scope of current legislation", according to the watchdog's new draft strategy.

The ICO's consultation is open until Friday 8 March.

Gill Bull, director of freedom of information at the ICO, said: "Our vision is to increase the public’s confidence in organisations that process personal data and in those responsible for making public information available. The transparency brought about by freedom of information is an important part of that vision and an essential part of our democracy. Amid concerns about the impacts of fake news, being able to access accurate and timely public information assumes increasing importance."