Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Scheming for Information

In October, the final part of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 comes into force. That section provides for the introduction by each relevant body of a Publication Scheme. This is a little-known element of the law, but if you want to make good use of FOI, this is a very good place to begin. And right now (September 2015), you can even comment on what it should involve.

The basic idea of a publication scheme is that every public body should set out, in a specific document, a list of the kinds of information it holds. One idea behind this is to avoid people having to use FOI by proactively publishing information; but it also should make FOI requests more effective, by giving requesters a realistic idea of the kind of records held and the kind of information they can expect to find.

This replaces the 'Section 15 and Section 16 Reference Books' of the previous legislation with a provision very  similar to the UK FOI Acts. These don't seem to have been updated very often, whereas the Publication Scheme is supposed to be updated every three years.

My experience of Publication Schemes is that they're not as useful as they ought to be because most people aren't aware of them and tend to go direct to the FOI officer. But if you're looking for information about a specific organisation, the Publication Scheme is an excellent place to begin.

One way of making Publication Schemes work is to specify a model which everyone should follow. This makes sure the right information is included, and makes it possible to compare organisations with each other. Here's a good example of a Publication Scheme, from Robert Gordon University in Scotland.

Publication Schemes for Irish bodies don't come into force until October 2015. But there's still time to influence what they should include.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has produced a draft model scheme for public bodies, along with some Guidance on Publication Schemes. If you want to comment on this, you have until close of business on Monday 21 September. Just send an email to with the subject title Model Publication Scheme. (You don't have to be Irish - anyone with an interest in transparency can contribute).

Go on, you could make a difference.

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