Act Now runs a Practitioner Certificate in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 – the inaugural course has been completed, the second one is currently running, and two more are scheduled for October and December. The course is endorsed by the Centre for FOI based at Dundee university. If you’re considering joining the course, what can you expect?
I wrote the course and I deliver it in Edinburgh (or elsewhere, if you’re interested in us bring the certificate to you). The first thing you can expect is to be in expert company – this is not to blow my own trumpet, but to reflect the high quality of the candidates we’ve welcomed. On both of the Spring courses, we had very strong candidates from a variety of backgrounds. But this mustn’t put off, the FOISA novice. One of the advantages of experience fellow delegates is that you can ask questions and get information from a wide variety of people with different experiences. The course also starts right at the beginning, with a clear explanation of the FOISA nuts and bolts.
More importantly, you get a focus on practicality. If you want an academic focus on the political and philosophical implications of FOI legislation, you may be disappointed. We don’t spend time on the history, and the comparison between FOI 2000 and FOISA is drawn only when it might be helpful for delegates. This course is designed to be for practitioners – people who have to deal with a daily influx of requests, difficult and challenging applicants, and tricky decisions. We look at the Scottish Commissioner’s guidance, useful decisions, and best of all, delegates themselves share their experiences. Some of the best ideas came from those people who work on FOISA every day. Most trainers like to show off, but it’s been good to shut up sometimes and let other perspectives be heard.
One of the chief objectives of the course is to demystify areas that are sometimes shrouded in uncertainty – not every candidate is convinced that they need to know about the Environmental Information Regulations, but many seem to have gone away with the ‘is it FOISA or EI(S)R?’ question slightly higher up their list of priorities. We have also had the traditional ‘what is personal data?’ debate to good effect, despite the risk of exposing who in the room is a real information rights geek (it is usually just me!).
At the end, we have an assessment, and again, the focus is on practicality. The feedback from the first round of delegates has been very positive, and so the format will remain unchanged. Many people who return to the exam room after years working in the office find the transition tricky and the effort of hand-writing an exam exhausting, so we have tried to find an alternative to the traditional 3 hour pressure cooker. The exam is a test of knowledge – candidates have to remember facts, and apply their knowledge to three detailed, list-style questions. Few FOISA professionals benefit from being able to remember specific subsections by rote, so the focus is on providing clear, accurate answers to practical questions. After this, delegates are given projects to choose from, and in 20 working days, they have to pick a request, consider all of the options, and then deliver a full response including a refusal notice.
The aim of the course is to give practitioners confidence, to ensure that they know how FOISA and the EI(S)Rs work, and to improve their ability to do their work. However, anything involving a ‘Certificate’ inevitably comes around to the big question of getting the marks. To pass this course, candidates need at least 50% of the marks on both parts of the assessment – exam and project. The first round of results are in, and everybody passed. The exam results were solid, but all candidates came into their own with the project. Every single one was really impressive, despite our demand for absolute precision on the project side. The results may be flattered by the quality of the candidates, but by giving people the chance to go away, consult other sources and have the time to make their case, we saw superb results.
This is not an easy course – day 1 is straightforward, but days 2 and 3 are hard work, with homework after each and the prospect of an exam shortly after the final day(see the course structure ). However, all candidates seem to have enjoyed it, and more importantly, all of them have shown so far that they are practitioners of a high standard. Roll on October!