While reforming FOI to cover more organisations is unavoidable, how that reform looks is not set in stone
Trust really matters to voluntary organisations. We're a sector that sees trust as a crucial resource we must earn. Without it, a voluntary organisation cannot act and fulfil its mission. We build that trust through several ways but looking to boost transparency and accountability is always centre stage.
Strengthening trust must be a driver of a future independent review of charity regulation, an SCVO call that the Scottish Government has recently backed. That will take some time to come to fruition, and we must approach any other proposals that seek to strengthen transparency and accountability with an open mind.
One proposal on the table is to extend the coverage of freedom of information legislation - formally known as The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, or FOISA - to voluntary organisations that deliver services of a public nature or receive public funding. It's a proposal by Katy Clark MSP, who is consulting on a member's bill.
Nobody proposes an extension that would cover all aspects of a voluntary organisation. Still, the proposal to extend FOI to cover certain functions of what voluntary organisations do could bring thousands of organisations into scope. The MSP for the West Scotland region is proposing reforms that would seek to follow the public pound.
The consultation, open until 3 February, seeks views on whether FOI should cover voluntary organisations and how any proportionate extension might look. Often, this discussion centres around exemptions for funding and contracts that do not reach a specific financial sum. However, what legislators deem proportionate could cover several other factors.
Under the Scottish Government's current powers, known as section 5 (of the Act) powers, a proportional extension looks to cover certain parts of the service delivery landscape rather than a whole sector, such as third or private. Ministers adopt a factors-based approach when considering an extension, and the extent of public funding is just one of the factors.
Ministers used this power in 2019 when they legislated to extend FoI to Registered Social Landlords. The Scottish Government's latest view on the matter, covered in a separate consultation on access to information rights in Scotland (closing on 2 February), appears to suggest more regular extensions through this route - including to parts of the voluntary sector - remains its preferred route.
Even without Katy Clark's proposal for the FOI Reform Bill, the Scottish Government would have sought to extend FOI to certain parts of the voluntary sector soon. While the Scottish Government's consultation takes a more cautious tone, there is no doubt that it will now seriously consider responses to the member's consultation to reform FOI in a much broader and speedier manner.
The proposal of a member's bill from Katy Clark MSP and the Scottish Government's consultation present two very different approaches to ensuring access to information rights keep pace with varying ways in which public services are delivered. Both, however, come off the back of a crucial report from a committee of the Scottish Parliament, which called for significant reform.
Reforming FOI to cover more organisations is inevitable. What is not inevitable is how that reform looks. Whether it's a cautious or broader approach, change is on the cards for some or all parts of the voluntary sector. Voluntary organisations must engage with this issue while different approaches are on the table to ensure they are not playing catch-up when any reform eventually arrives.
SCVO will make that task much more manageable. Any voluntary organisation can join our online event with Katy Clark MSP, the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland, and the Scottish Information Commissioner on 9 January. This event is your best chance to put questions to those calling for reform and contribute to SCVO's response to the extension issue.
If SCVO is to approach these proposals with an open mind, we must hear from as many voluntary organisations as possible. I've already met with a range of sector bodies over recent weeks, and others are welcome to get in touch with their views by email or booking a short call with me. Our work here will likely inform SCVO's position on the reform of FOI for some years to come.
Paul Bradley is policy and public affairs manager at SCVO.