ICO launches consultation on how it prioritises FOI complaints

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched a consultation on how it prioritises the complaints it receives about public bodies’ handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Limited funding, an increase in FOI cases brought to the ICO and an increased need to support stretched public authorities have created ‘a perfect storm’. The ICO is therefore looking at ways to improve its FOI casework services to make information rights work more effectively.

The proposal is to prioritise complaints where there is a clear public interest in the information that has been asked for. Public interest covers a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society.

New criteria for prioritisation are set out in the consultation, including applying the following tests:

  • Is there a high public interest in the information requested? Does it raise a novel or clearly high-profile issue that we should look at quickly?
  • Is the requester a person or group who is raising information rights awareness, supporting vulnerable groups or raising awareness of potentially significant public interest issues?
  • Are vulnerable groups or people potentially significantly affected by the information requested?
  • Would prioritisation have significant operational benefits or support those regulated?

The present system means cases are taking a long time to complete, which ultimately hinders the delivery of effective transparency and open government. The proposed changes mean the ICO will aim to allocate priority cases within four weeks and complete them at pace. We will complete 90% of all cases within six months. 

This work is one of the first outcomes of ICO25, the ICO’s three-year strategic vision, which sets out how the ICO will regulate information rights as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Warren Seddon, ICO Director of FOI and Transparency, said:

“This is about promoting openness, transparency and accountability in line with ICO25, our new corporate strategy. Expediting cases where there is a clear potential public interest means people will get quicker access to information when they are entitled to it or a clear explanation when they are not.

“With an increased demand for our FOI services in recent years, coupled with limited funding, we need to make better choices about how we allocate our resources to those issues that will have the highest impact.”

Prioritisation does not mean that the ICO will predetermine the outcome of a case. We may uphold the complaint or we may not. Where possible, we will resolve a case based on the information available to us when we receive it, either through a decision notice or dispute resolution. This will provide regulatory certainty to the requester about our decision as quickly as possible. They or the public authority can then move forward as they wish to access other remedies, including to the tribunal.

The new prioritisation criteria will cover complaints made under both the FOI Act and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

The proposal is a mitigation of issues in the current system, whilst the ICO works to tackle the backlog, bring response times down and improve performance of public authorities.

The ICO is keen to hear a range of views, including those from members of the public requesting information, journalists, public authorities and civil society.

Responses must be submitted through the ICO website by today.

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