ICO to fast-track public interest Freedom of Information complaints

Regulator expects to give up to a fifth of complaints faster treatment

Freedom of Information concerning complaints over material of ‘significant public interest’ will be identified and dealt with faster, the Information Commissioner’s Office has announced.

The ICO will aim to spot such cases within four weeks and expects that 15-20% will get priority treatment. The organisation is also increasing its target for closing cases within six months from 80% to 90%. The changes will cover complaints over requests made under FOI and the Environmental Information Regulations.

Information commissioner John Edwards said the measures are part of the organisation aiming to do more with fewer resources.

“Timeliness is everything in access to information, so we need the support from public authorities to ensure people are receiving timely responses,” he said. “We will be doing our part by adding pace to our work, but we need commitment from senior leaders across public authorities to drive FOI compliance within their organisations, investing time and resources where needed to ensure people are receiving clarity about what information they are entitled to within the legal timeframe.”

Edwards, who was appointed in 2021 from a similar role in New Zealand, has taken a more aggressive approach to resolving FOI complaints, which can be made by applicants when public sector organisations refuse to provide information. The ICO said that over the last year it has reduced its caseload of live complaints by almost two-thirds and delivered a record number of decision notices, more than 2,500.

In a blogpost, the ICO’s director of FOI and transparency Warren Seldon said that its current caseload of around 800 live cases, down from 2,295 in April 2022, is the lowest for more than a decade. It has reduced ‘premature’ complaints by changing its online form, streamlined processes and empowered staff to close cases quickly where appropriate to focus on substantive complaints. He added that this has not led to a disproportionate increase in appeals to the Information Tribunal, the option available to those unhappy with an ICO decision.

He added that the ICO is having constructive discussions with the Cabinet Office on a bespoke plan for clearing old cases, which represents more than a tenth of the ICO’s current caseload.

“There are a number of reasons for this, including the complexity and volume of requests the Cabinet Office receives, as well as capacity issues both at the ICO and at Cabinet Office during and since the pandemic to progress cases at different points,” Seldon wrote.

Last week, the ICO told Lewisham Council to clear a backlog of 338 overdue FOI requests, including 221 that were more than a year old. Its enforcement notice required the council to all the outstanding requests within six months, as well publish an action plan to mitigate future delays within 35 days.

PublicTechnology staff

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