Reflections of an Act Now FOI Trainer

People in a meeting

Susan Wolf writes…

They say time flies when you are having fun. Well, I must have been having fun because I can’t quite believe I have been training with Act Now for over 12 months. Really where has the time gone? During my time at the University of Northumbria I developed the habit of keeping a journal in which I reflected on my teaching. Old habits die hard and I have continued this practice now that I am a regular Act Now training consultant. Looking back over my journal for the last 12 months a number of common themes became apparent. I thought it might be interesting to share these. However before I do, I just want to thank all the delegates I have met for challenging me, keeping me on my toes and reminding me how interesting life can be in Freedom of Information Land.

Training practitioners is not something new to me. For over 11 years I taught FOI practitioners on the Northumbria University LLM in Information Rights Law & Practice Degree. However, the Act Now courses, with their focus on practical training have exposed me to a wider range of people, from a wide range of public sector organisations, all trying to get to grips with broadly similar issues. From the most experienced practitioner who wants a ‘top up course’ to the absolute beginner who has just landed their first job in information rights, all practitioners appear to share some common concerns and worries.

There are also some widely shared misconceptions which still seem to cause the odd debate, despite the Freedom of Information Act 2000 being almost 15 years old. For instance, I have heard some delegates say that the ‘clock start’s ticking’ on a FOI request on the day it is received by a public authority. I have also heard delegates talk about fines that the ICO can impose for breaches of the Freedom of Information Act. Those are always good to correct, and it is nice to hear the sigh of relief when they are advised correctly on these points.

However, I also frequently get asked questions that there are, quite simply, no definitive answers to. In good ‘lawyer’ tradition I could say ‘well that depends’ but that isn’t always what people want to hear. For example, I have been asked questions about how far a public authority must go in advising and assisting an applicant, or how many times they need to go back to the applicant to clarify a tricky request. Another question that taxes people is how long it is reasonable to wait between requests before engaging S. 14 (2) for repeated requests. These are always good for some discussion, but often time is limited on a one-day course, particularly when delegates quite rightly expect we cover all the course content.

Other misconceptions or worries centre on issues relating to the redaction of staff names in email correspondence; how to distinguish between ‘business as usual’ questions and FOI requests; or the significance of ‘confidentiality’ markings on information provided by third party contractors. The ‘new’ Freedom of Information 2018 Code of Practice addresses some of these issues. However not all FOI practitioners are necessarily aware of the provisions of the new Code. Of course, it is difficult for practitioners, who are undoubtedly over-burdened, to keep up to date and on top of things, or indeed for us to cover these issues in detail in a one-day course. One way of keeping up to date is to read our Act Now blogs, which are all written by Act Now consultants and which deal with new developments and case law. However, this journey of reflection has made me realise that it would be useful to write some ‘Back to Basics’ blogs that address some of the issues and concerns that I know FOI practitioners share. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of ‘FOI Basics Blogs’ on the issues raised during our one-day FOI courses starting with a blog on ‘Business as Usual or FOI Request’?

For those FOI practitioners who want to take their training and understanding to the next level, Act Now Training now offer a 4-day FOI Practitioner Certificate this course is modelled on the highly successful GDPR Practitioner Certificate and was launched in May 2019. We have now delivered it seven times and it is absolutely clear this model enables FOI practitioners to develop a more detailed knowledge and understanding of the FOI in practice. It gives delegates the chance to explore the exemptions in far more detail over two days, with Day 3 focussing on the most frequently used exemptions, including Sections 40 and 43. The course also prepares delegates for writing a Refusal Notice which forms part of the final assessment.

Delegates have given very positive feedback:

“The course was very well structured and well timed. The length of the course was ideal as this gave sufficient time to discuss all areas relating to FOI and also gave candidates ample time for discussion and study. The trainer was very supportive and the knowledge that has been imparted has enabled me to develop the FOI function with our organisation. Highly Recommended.”
JW, Heywood Middleton and Rochdale NHS

“The course was excellent and really sets you up for the exam, I would recommend it to others working in the field. I have put what I learned on the course to good use as I am a FOI and DPA Manager in a very busy post with lots of business each and every day; many of the requests are unusual. The course and now passing the exam have given me the confidence to do my job.”
JH, NI Courts and Tribunals Service

“Thank you for a great course – as always all the trainers at Act Now are extremely knowledgeable, approachable and make the learning experience really enjoyable.”
KF, St Helens Council

As you can see Delegates are enjoying the course content and delivery style. Most importantly they are able to take away their gained knowledge and apply it to their everyday role with confidence. After all, that is the purpose and objective of a course such as this. It makes me immensely proud and pleased to be able to be a part of the team that helps delegates in this way everyday and I look forward to the next 12 months.

Susan Wolf is a trainer for Act Now Training. She has over ten years experience teaching information rights practitioners on the LLM Information Rights Law & Practice at Northumbria University. All our trainers are available to deliver customised in house training, health checks and audits. Please read the testimonials from satisfied clients and get in touch for a quote.

Author: actnowtraining

Act Now Training is Europe's leading provider of information governance training, serving government agencies, multinational corporations, financial institutions, and corporate law firms. Our associates have decades of information governance experience. We pride ourselves on delivering high quality training that is practical and makes the complex simple. Our extensive programme ranges from short webinars and one day workshops through to higher level practitioner certificate courses delivered online or in the classroom.

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