Freedom of Information is here to stay. foiPRO is here to help

By: Carlos Oliveira on
4 minutes to read
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There has been a huge amount of media coverage recently about the Government’s Independent Commission review into the Freedom of Information Act, the results of which were published last week. From a media perspective there is a huge amount of self-interest in the future of FOI. Since the act came into force in 2005 journalists have come to rely on the Act as crucial source of information. Many organisations who fall under the act (over 100,000 of them) call this “Lazy Journalism”, however there is no doubt that it has brought greater transparency on how publically funded organisations operate which can only be a good thing.

Outside of the media, the general public have also embraced the act as a way to get answers from their local authorities, police forces, NHS trusts and central government agencies. It is estimated that there are around 200,000 requests now made under the Act each year and this number is continuing to rise.

Whilst the positives of the Act are clear to see, what is also clear is that the burden placed on organisations who fall under the act is continuing to rise. All organisations should aim to respond to FOI requests within 20 working days, something that is becoming more and more difficult as the number and complexity of requests increases.

The Independent Commission report makes specific reference to the burden the Act has placed on those it affects:

“…by way of example of the experience of Liverpool City Council, the number of requests received in 2010 (1,217 requests) to the number of requests received in 2014 (2,139) shows an increase of 922 or in percentages of approximately 76%, and an increase in costs of approximately £150K per annum”

With this as context, in mid-2015 I was introduced by Microsoft to Sandra Lomax of Baker, Lomax and Shackley, a firm of Information Governance experts, who at the time had been commissioned to produce a white paper into information sharing in the cloud. One of the services offered by BLS is to audit organisations to ensure compliance with data and information regulations, there was one area in particular where organisations were falling short time & time again - Freedom of Information.

The result of that conversation was 9 months of development and refinement by the team at Shaping Cloud, working in partnership with BLS, to develop foiPRO. The first cloud based software tool purely built to reduce the burden of FOI for organisations who fall under the Act. The product was officially launched on Monday on Day 1 of the ICO Conference in Manchester covering Data Protection Practitioners and FOI Practitioners.

The response to the tool was overwhelmingly positive, almost every person we spoke to expressed frustration with the current system being used by their organisation - in many cases these are crude Excel sheets, Access databases or a FOI module bolted onto a CRM system that doesn’t capture the intricacies of the ICO workflow. Each one of the system demo’s over the 2 days attracted a crowd of people and over 100 delegates expressed an interest in the tool.

One of the biggest attractions for people at the conference is the fact that as a cloud based system we are able to deploy new versions of the software every 2 weeks, this allows us to be incredibly responsive both to customer demand but also to changes in regulation and guidance. Many of the recommendations from the Independent Commission have already been introduced, such as:

“We recommend that all public authorities who employ at least 100 full time equivalent staff are required to publish their compliance statistics in relation to their duties under the Act”

The development road map is being directly guided by the demands of our users and we are currently offering free 3 month trials for all organisations who wish to form a part of this group. Right now, the number one request is to extend the tool to cover Subject Access Requests and development work has already begun on this new module.

About the Author

Founder of SPINR, Carlos has been advocating how the use of a SOA approach based around API's can provide the platform for true transformation in the Public Sector. Aside from SPINR he is also the Chair of the techUK Local Public Services Committe that aims to improve the engagment between the public sector and the IT industry.