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Some councils set to struggle on FOI

Lindsay Clark

Some local authorities do not have the IT systems in place to meet all the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force at the beginning of this year, according to Socitm, the public sector IT managers’ organisation.

Socitm president Chris Guest said that although many councils were well prepared for the legislation, which entitles individuals or companies access to public sector information within 20 days, others were not.

"Some organisations have not got systems in place to meet the full needs [of the act]," he said. "There will be a lot of procurement of document management systems into the year. Some people are running behind."

The Office of the Information Commissioner will be responsible for enforcing the act. It can specify the steps a public body must take to comply with the act and can serve an enforcement notice. Failure to comply with an enforcement notice may be dealt with as though the public authority had committed contempt of court.

Graham Smith, deputy information commissioner, said he was most concerned about smaller public sectors bodies, including small councils, non-departmental bodies and smaller health organisations.

"If there is evidence of regular failure then we can go in and look at systems and find out why this is happening and what they need to do to put things in order," he said.

Socitm’s Guest said he hoped the information commissioner would take a pragmatic approach over the next four months in dealing councils that failing on some aspects of the act.

IT departments preparing for the act have bought or adapted electronic document management systems to track information the public body holds. Case management systems were also useful to track progress of enquires and co-ordinate work on them.

However Guest said it was more than an IT problem. "It is an organisational issue. In some cases it has been moved on to the head of IT - that is the wrong approach. It is about cultural change within the public sector from the need to know to the right to know. There are issue to do with IT, but part of a wider business change."

Socitm offers guidance

Next week Socitm will publish guidance to help councils manage the needs of the FOI act. It suggests organisations short of resources should maximise the amount of information available on their websites to cope with demand from the public. Research shows that customers prefer self-service and could handle their own FOI enquiries. But for citizens to turn to the website to satisfy their FOI queries, not only must the information be present, but easy to find, Socitm warns.

For Socitm guidance visit www.socitm.gov.uk


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