On 7 September, the Scottish Information Commissioner launched the consultation paper, "Revising the Approach to Publication Schemes". The consultation aims to revise the way in which Scottish public authorities 'pro-actively' make information available under Scottish freedom of information law.
The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 ('FOISA') requires all Scottish public local authorities to adopt and maintain a scheme for the publication of information that it holds. These schemes must specify the different types of information that it intends to publish; how it will be published; and any charges levied to access the information.
Under the consultation, the Information Commissioner is proposing to create a single model publication scheme for all public bodies to use. The consultation envisages, as is the case in the rest of the UK, that all Scottish public bodies will adopt the model publication scheme.
The Benefits of the Single Model Scheme
Currently, FOISA already provides for the adoption of model publication schemes by groups of public bodies with similar functions. This can create efficiencies for both the Commissioner and public bodies.
Once a model scheme has been approved by the Information Commissioner, it can then be adopted by any appropriate public authority. This reduces the Commissioner's workload, as there are fewer individual schemes to approve. At the same time, the drafting of a model scheme allows public bodies to pool resources and expertise.
The consultation also points towards increased innovation as a result of public body collaboration. The paper notes that the quality of model schemes in terms of design, presentation and available information is generally higher than that of most individual schemes.
Flowing from this increase in the quality of publication schemes is the potential for an important cost-saving for public bodies. FOISA allows public authorities to refuse requests for information if that information is already available through publication schemes. Accordingly, the more information that is made available in the public domain and the easier it is to find, the less costly individual information requests public authorities should have to deal with. This is a saving that the Commissioner aims to further encourage through the single model scheme proposed in the consultation paper.
The Drawbacks of the Single Model Scheme
Nevertheless, the development of a single model scheme has its drawbacks. Individual guides to information would still need to be submitted by each public authority, setting out the details of the information it intends to publish under the various information classes, whilst standard charges for access to information held in publication schemes will still have to be discussed and agreed. These are, however, matters which each public authority already has to address.
There is therefore much to be considered if the Commissioner is to achieve his plan of implementing a single model scheme. While the consultation aims to encourage disclosure and create efficiencies for both the Commissioner and public authorities, it remains a moot point who will benefit the most from these proposals - public authorities, the general public, or, indeed, the Commissioner himself.
If you think your organisation may be affected by the consultation's proposals, have your say here. The Scottish Information Commissioner's consultation paper is open for responses until 29 October 2010.