DON'T BE CAUGHT OUT BY RISING TIDE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION REQUESTS

Thousands of councils and other public bodies could be caught unawares as requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 increase over the next few months.

The Act came into force in January, but experience from other European countries shows that it takes at least six months for members of the public to make use of their new rights. This could lead to heavy fines for organisations which have not geared up to meet Government targets for handling requests quickly and efficiently.

Datawatch offers a tried-and-tested solution to the problem by providing software which can be installed rapidly and integrated smoothly with existing systems, enabling public bodies to:

Meet the 20 day target for responding to information requests
Track the internal cost of dealing with each request
Create a full audit trail for each request

The costs involved in providing information can be prohibitive if the process is not properly managed. A recent letter to the Times stated that at least £19,000 of NHS time was likely to be spent answering a series of detailed requests sent to 38 hospitals by a journalist under the Freedom of Information Act.

Even the most complex requests can be handled efficiently thanks to Datawatch’s workflow engine which allows information to be generated concurrently by different departments within an organisation.

At the same time, the comprehensive tracking and monitoring features make it easy to identify frequently asked questions. These can then be included in the publication scheme which each public body is required to produce under the terms of the Act, and can also be placed on the organisation’s website for future reference.

The company’s Freedom of Information specialist, Cathy Lloyd, says: "There are around 100,000 public authorities in the UK affected by this new law, ranging from local government to the NHS, schools and the police. Some of them will already have started to receive requests for information and are finding it difficult and time-consuming for staff to deal with them in addition to their normal workload."

"Our research shows that in other countries where similar legislation has been brought in, requests initially come in small numbers but start to rise after about six months as the public become aware of what they are entitled to."

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