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An Essex council has scrutinised its own processes for responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests after data published in its quarter 3 overview report showed that the number of requests replied to outside of the required time frame was far above the authority’s target.
At a meeting of Basildon Council’s overview and scrutiny commission group on January 30, councillors expressed their concern over the high proportion of FOI requests which had not been responded to within the obligatory 20-day window which local authorities are expected to observe.
Chairing the meeting, Councillor Kevin Wingfield (Con. Laindon Park) said that, whereas the council’s aim was to reduce the amount of FOIs being responded to after the standard 20-day time frame to 2 per cent of the total number received, the authority was currently operating for the year at about 32 per cent.
Cllr Wingfield asked what action was being taken to remedy the issue, to which an officer for the council replied: “There has been a decrease in the number of FOI responses… Council directors have agreed that all resolutions will be treated as a priority, and all directors will be copied in (to email threads relating to individual requests) as a form of escalation.”
When asked about the root cause of the delays, the officer added: “Generally, FOIs are very complex, requiring multiple and often quite historic data sets which require working across departments.
“There have been some issues surrounding understanding who (those making FOI requests) should approach as a first point of contact.”
However, she said that with an overview by the council’s directors, she expected there to be a “vast improvement”. Councillor Maryam Yaqub (Lab, St Martin’s) pointed out the “very manual” redaction process when providing responses to FOI requests, noting that it often required the efforts of two people to collate and redact information, and asked whether this system would be able to be digitised or streamlined.
Council director Stuart Young said that the council was currently researching options for trialling or introducing an automated redaction system, and that updates were “in progress”.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 provides access to information held by public authorities by ensuring that these authorities are obliged to publish data relating to their activities and allowing members of the public to request this information, subject to exemptions for reasons of sensitivity or business interest.