Chief Ombudsman’s statement on official information response times during the COVID-19 emergency
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier is urging both agencies and people requesting official information to act fairly, reasonably and with understanding during the course of the Coronavirus emergency.
Mr Boshier says he recognises central and local government agencies are operating in a rapidly evolving environment.
“I appreciate that the overwhelming majority of public sector workers are working from home and that may be a challenge for agencies when setting priorities and allocating resources.
“The last thing that I want to do is to put unreasonable demands on agencies to meet their Official Information Act (OIA) and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) response deadlines. To this end, I will expand and intensify my own efforts to triage complaints in a way which reflects the realities of the present situation. I expect that agencies will continue to keep me informed as to their circumstances so that I can adjust my approach as appropriate.
“I will be taking extenuating circumstances into account when deciding how to deal with complaints about delays or extensions of the timeframes for responses to requests.
"Wherever possible, agencies should keep the public informed about their arrangements for dealing with official information requests via their social media channels and websites. Individual requesters should also be kept up to date about their requests, particularly if there are any unavoidable delays.
“Agencies should bear in mind that requesters may be more amenable to accepting extensions—particularly extensions which seem longer than usual—if they are given a realistic understanding of the competing work pressures or staffing issues which mean the agency is unable to meet the original time limit.
“I don’t want to place any unnecessary burden on agencies or ministers but at the same time, big decisions are being made in the wake of the global outbreak and they must be in a position to respond to requests from the media and others for information about those issues as soon as possible.
“There may be a need for even greater transparency when a decision involves public health and safety or those that affect someone’s financial circumstances, housing situation or family circumstances. I have told my staff to give these kinds of complaint priority.”
Mr Boshier says information will continue to flow if people are fair and reasonable.
“I do ask requesters to be very mindful of the present circumstances and the pressures agencies are under when making information requests. Agencies must also be aware that access to information is still vital even under present circumstances.”
For further advice on making requests, please refer to the Making official information requests: A guide for requesters.
For more information about the various mechanisms available to agencies to help manage requests under the OIA and LGOIMA, please refer to our guidance:
You can also contact the Office of the Ombudsman for advice by emailing [email protected].