Job opportunities have been opened up by legislation which gives the public the right to request access to information held by public authorities.
Both public bodies and their suppliers are appointing people to manage their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force at the start of the year. It covers both paper-based records and information managed by IT systems. Scotland has a separate act.
The significance of this new career opportunity has been highlighted by the demand for the BCS Information Systems Examinations Board (ISEB) certificate in freedom of information.
"We started running the ISEB course in London and soon extended it to Leeds and Manchester - and we are now launching it in Glasgow," said Sue Cullen, solicitor and course director at legal firm Pinsent Masons, one of the BCS accredited training organisations.
"Demand is mainly from public authorities but we are also getting people from companies that provide services to them. Information given by a company to a public authority in its business dealings - such as tender information - may be requested by the public.
"In addition, if a company is running IT services for a public authority it may have to be ready to provide information which belongs to the authority but is managed by the company."
This whole area is creating a new career path and making public authorities look at how they operate.
"Many authorities are getting serious about their records management obligations," Cullen said. "We are seeing people on the course who have been newly appointed to this role. Some have experience, perhaps having been information officers; they might be middle-level people. Others are relatively new to it and are quite junior."
The ISEB certificate is aimed at both experienced people and newcomers. There are no formal entry requirements but candidates need to be familiar with the act.
The significance of the legislation is reflected in the fact that the course takes 40 hours, typically over eight days, at a training organisation accredited by the BCS. At the end of the course candidates take a three-hour exam, with multiple-choice, short-answer and essay questions.
The ISEB said, "Organisations need expert freedom of information advice to ensure organisational reputation and credibility are enhanced through relevant information and records management policies and procedures."
Cullen said, "Previous legislation meant public authorities did not reveal anything, but now there is a huge change to a culture of openness and complete transparency and accountability. There is certainly resistance to it in some cases. This is a significant culture change and for some it will take a long time to complete."
With all this in mind, the ISEB course aims to enable candidates to appreciate freedom of information in its widest context and to develop procedures for processing and monitoring requests for information, from receipt to disclosure, including the calculation of fees if applicable.
Cullen said, "There is certainly a career path here. Freedom of information is here and it is not going to go away."
Training for FOI professionals
The ISEB course aims to enable candidates to:
- Appreciate freedom of information in its widest context
- Understand the differences and links between the Freedom of Information Act and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act
- Develop procedures for processing and monitoring requests for information, from receipt to disclosure or exemption, including the calculation of fees if applicable
- Understand exemptions to access and the "public interest" test
- Understand the enforcement and legal action procedures
- Identify information likely to be requested and understand the mechanism for publishing it
- Explain the philosophy of freedom of information and the right of access to public authority information.