THE handling of Freedom of Information requests at Scottish Borders Council has been highly commended by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Kevin Dunion was critical of SBC after a two-day visit in February this year when he discovered “the council had not complied with its (FOI) responsibilities in that it failed to respond to requests within the required timescale”.
In total, SBC responded to only 71 per cent of FOI submissions within the statutory 20 working days in 2009.
But between June 1 and October 31 this year, following the scathing appraisal by Mr Dunion, the council improved its performance to 99.7 per cent – replying within the 20-day timescale to all but one of 319 requests received.
It has also improved staff training, systems and guidance for members of the public who make information requests.
Mr Dunion said: “The turnaround at Scottish Borders Council is highly commendable, and shows what can be achieved when we work together.
“Practice assessments are a vital part of my enforcement strategy which aim to help authorities improve their response to freedom of information requests from the public.
“Good practice reduces the number of appeals that people have to make to me, reduces the burden on authorities and gets information into the hands of the public more quickly.”
Mr Dunion praised SBC’s “positive attitude” to the 10 recommendations – which required 27 actions – that he made in July’s report after February’s visit.
He added: “I would like to acknowledge the effort which has gone into securing these marked improvements in performance.”
Among the recommendations in his report, Mr Dunion told SBC to “address the distinct and pressing need for general awareness-raising throughout the organisation in relation to obligations under FOI legislation ... and more focused training for those with specific responsibility for dealing with information requests.”
He also criticised the failure of SBC to fully explain to applicants when they were unable to get a reply to an FOI request due its costs exceeding £600.
The information commissioner stated there was an overdependence on one SBC employee to deal with the FOI requests, and if she was off work, no-one else was able to access the information.
Mr Dunion added in the report: “During the visit it was recommended an alternative data system should be explored which would allow stable storage of information and wider access.”
Since the inspection, SBC has introduced a new recording and monitoring system and launched a new website to inform the public about their rights.
Henry Thompson, SBC’s head of business and technology solutions, told us: “We are delighted with the information commissioner’s comments on the improved performance in complying with freedom of information requests.
“A lot of hard work has gone into changing the way the council handles requests. “Development of staff training and the launch of the Borders Informs web pages have all contributed to the successful outcome.
“Working with the commissioner’s staff and agreeing the action plan to improve our practice and achieve compliance has been very valuable.”