Yesterday evening I participated in a round table discussion hosted by Holyrood Magazine and the Freedom of Information Commissioner. The idea was to bring together practitioners, journalists and public authorities to discuss the practice and reform of our freedom of information arrangements in Scotland.
My own experience is that the Freedom of Information Act has changed the culture of information management in public authorities. Far more information is routinely disclosed and there is a much greater willingness to respond promptly to specific requests. Whilst that was generally accepted, journalists felt that requests were still dealt with too slowly and the loopholes in the legislation exploited when the information might lead to an embarrassing story.
One outcome of the legislation has been the creation of freedom of information specialists within public bodies. They have an important role in managing requests, chasing replies and raising awareness within their organisation. There was an interesting discussion around the relationship between the role of the press office and FoI. My own view is that FoI staff generally promote a culture of disclosure rather than simply policing the system.
Finally, we discussed the idea that fees should be introduced for FoI requests. Whilst it is understandable that public bodies should want to maximise income in the current financial circumstances, there was little support for fees. In my view FoI is an essential element of a democratic society and democracy costs. So charging is a no in my book.
A report of the full debate will appear in a future edition of Holyrood Magazine.