FOIA: an update on our definition documents and template guides for publication schemes

By Steve Wood, Head of Policy Delivery.

outsourcingWhen most people think of freedom of information, they probably think of the right to request information about public bodies. While this is an important tool for transparency, it isn’t the only requirement of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Under FOIA every public authority must also have a publication scheme where they proactively publish information. In 2008 the ICO approved a model publication scheme for public authorities to adopt; it sets out the framework they must follow to meet their legal obligations. Publication schemes enable a public authority to demonstrate their commitment to openness and to build trust with the public.

While the ICO has learnt over the years that the relationship between publication schemes and volume of requests is complex, we still believe a well-managed, dynamic, publication scheme can assist in reducing the volume of requests received on certain topics or issues.

To complement the scheme and to help organisations to meet their legal commitments we also produced definition documents and template guides for various sectors, providing guidance to public authorities on how best to make certain classes of information routinely available. The classes include policies and procedures, minutes of meetings, annual reports and financial information.

Publication schemes must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the public. In 2012 we announced a plan to update these documents and we provided a progress report last year. Our work to update all 50 or so documents is now complete.

We’ve taken the opportunity to modernise all the publication scheme documentation, updating contents to reflect developments both in the law and initiatives within each sector, and presenting them in a new clearer format. For each sector, we have consulted extensively across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in order to ensure the guidance is helping organisations to comply with their duty to make information available to the public. The changes we’ve made to improve transparency vary by sector and include:

  • more details of expenditure by public authorities, including:
    • all spending over £10,000 for GPs;
    • all spending over £500 for Local Government; and
    • all spending over £25,000 for universities;
  • more information about procurement processes and contracts;
  • information on salaries, allowances and expenses, particularly of senior staff and board members;
  • more information on policies and procedures, such as:
  • the provision of services by the public authority;
  • employment; and
  • data protection;
  • details of privacy impact assessments;
  • locations of CCTV cameras; and
  • in the health sector, information about meetings with pharmaceutical companies and other medical suppliers.

Our aim of encouraging public bodies to share information proactively with the public links with the government’s Open Data initiative and transparency agenda. The documents also reflect the recent changes to FOIA relating to Datasets. These changes came into force in September 2013. The publication scheme guidance reiterates the obligation that public authorities have to publish previously requested datasets in re-usable formats and under a specified licence. We’ve also taken the opportunity to remind public authorities to use the Open Government Licence (OGL) as the default licence and we recommend this as good practice for all information published, regardless of whether the information is a dataset.

During the consultation process we’ve received positive feedback from stakeholders that the updated publication scheme and guidance provide them with a structure that has helped them to comply with their FOIA obligations and has improved transparency. Authorities have also said that they welcomed the opportunity to engage with the ICO by commenting on the definition documents and template guides.

The documents brought up to date are as follows:

But it is not enough for public authorities simply to adopt the model publication scheme and implement it by using a definition document/template guide. Organisations must also maintain their publication schemes, updating them as necessary to ensure that relevant information is routinely made available to the public.

We expect organisations to keep their publication schemes up to date in order to comply with their legal duties under FOIA, and we will consider monitoring individual authorities’ publication schemes in 2015 and 2016 to see how effectively they have been doing this.

We recommend that public authorities review their publication scheme and make relevant changes if they have not done so since these revised guidance documents were published. If you cannot make all the changes needed straight away, you should ensure that you have a plan in place.

Last updated 17/09/2014 9:59

Steve WoodSteve Wood‘s department develops the outputs that explain the ICO’s policy position on the proper application of information rights law and good practice, through lines to take, guidance, internal training, advice and specific projects.
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