Published: 24/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5944 Page 28
Everyone in your organisation should know that every document they produce might one day be released under the Freedom of Information Act. The public has a legitimate right to know, so you should not discourage staff from committing information to paper, even if it reflects badly on the organisation. Devise a clear e-mail policy and insist that trivial and serious content are kept separate.
Only withhold what you have to
The act's 23 exemptions allow an organisation legally to withhold information, but in many cases the decision must be justified by 'public interest'. In the words of the information commissioner, 'there is no exemption for embarrassment'.
The act requires public authorities to release information proactively, via their publication schemes.
If your organisation's scheme includes the type of information people actually want, you could save your colleagues a lot of time answering information requests.
And do not be afraid to release bad news. It will gain more credibility than if it was prised out via a request.
Sort out your records management
The public's right to know can only be realised if public authorities organise all data effectively.
Unless your organisation can swiftly retrieve and deliver information, it will be perceived as badly run. Under section 46 of FoI, the lord chancellor has produced a code of practice on records management.
Remember that failure to comply may be a breach of other legislation, including the Public Records Act, the Data Protection Act, the Local Government Act and the Human Rights Act.
John Ashton is director of training consultancy freedomofinformation. co. uk and author of Opening Up: a guide to FOI for NHS communication managers. Contact ja@freedomfinformation. co. uk