Like many of us, I’ve watched more briefings from Downing Street and St Andrew’s House in the past 10 weeks than I’d normally expect to across a number of years. Between the briefings and the vast array of papers, guidance and articles being shared each day, in these strange times we’re all learning to engage with the kind of PowerPoint slides and expert insights that would previously have been relegated firmly to the realm of statisticians and academics.

As Scottish Information Commissioner, I am responsible for promoting and enforcing Scotland’s freedom of information (FOI) law. So both in my role as Commissioner and as a member of the public, I’ve been considering how public authorities have adapted their approach to sharing information of all kinds since the impact of this pandemic began to be felt – and how they will do so in weeks and months ahead.

Inevitably we all have questions about the decisions being made by our leaders and public services, and never more so than at a time when those decisions, sadly, may mean the difference between life and death. This is why it is so vital that Scotland’s law ensures everyone has a right to seek information from public authorities, and – with only very few, limited exceptions – to receive it.

Though temporary emergency changes have been made to FOI law across the past two months, these key rights stand: authorities must still respond to requests they receive for information promptly (meaning without delay), and at most this should be within 20 working days.

For some public authorities, changes brought about by the current disruptions will make this challenging (whether as a result of closure of offices, intense demand for services, or increased absence of staff). However, not all will be impacted by the pandemic in the same way, and every authority must continue to respond to FOI requests promptly, and in any event within the 20 working day timeline.

The Scottish Parliament has, however, acknowledged the challenges faced by authorities and has accepted that sometimes, even when responding promptly, it will not be possible to meet this timeline. The current emergency legislation therefore allows me, in certain circumstances relating to the pandemic, to decide that an authority has not breached the law even if it has failed to respond to a request within 20 working days. I have issued detailed guidance on the emergency changes to FOI law on my website, and will continue to enforce these provisions firmly and fairly.

Crucially, FOI law also places a duty on public authorities to publish information about the work they do, the decisions they take and the services they provide – in a proactive way and not just when requested. This duty remains unchanged but is more important now than ever.

Since we are all coming to accept that the disruption caused by the pandemic will continue for some time, I hope and expect that public authorities in Scotland will respond by adapting their ways of working, learning from this challenge, and updating their practices to ensure that people can easily access the information that matters to them – during this difficult time and beyond.

By publishing key information proactively, clearly and speedily, authorities can both reduce the time they spend responding to requests for information later, and promote the transparent culture we all want and expect in our public services.

The importance of this point was clearly highlighted by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee last month, in their report on the current state of FOI law. Although the Committee’s report was agreed before the outbreak of Covid-19 in Scotland, many of their recommendations highlight the real opportunities we have not only to maintain, but to improve, access to information for people in Scotland, and I look forward to helping them become a reality.

Ultimately, we – citizens, public authorities and regulators – are in this together. In the face of all the disruption and uncertainty we are living through, we have a chance to change the way we understand and interact with one another about key decisions and services for the better. I hope and believe that with some determination, hard work and open dialogue, we can make a real difference.

Daren Fitzhenry is Scottish Information Commissioner. He is the independent public official responsible for promoting and enforcing Scotland’s freedom of information law, appointed by Her Majesty the Queen, on the nomination of the Scottish Parliament.

Full information about freedom of information law and rights in Scotland is available on the Commissioner’s website at

Detail about freedom of information during the coronavirus pandemic (including guidance for public authorities on their duties, and information for members of the public on requesting information at this time) is set out in the Commissioner’s Covid-19 and FOI information hub at

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.