Under the Fast-Track procedure for access to EU documents complaints, the EO aims to take a position within two months on whether the document should be released to the complainant by the EU administration. This represents a substantial Ombudsman reduction in inquiry time, achieved by creating a separate dedicated team to process these complaints quickly. The aim is to increase the chances of complainants getting information while it is still relevant and useful.
When people turn to the European Ombudsman with an access to documents (FOI) complaint, it is because their request for information has been wholly or partially refused by the EU body concerned and they are not satisfied with the outcome.
To reach the point where they can turn to the Ombudsman, the complainant has already gone through a series of legally required steps with the institution, which also include the institution setting out its reasons for its decision. Therefore the European Ombudsman decided that - for access to document complaints - there is no value in taking the normal intermediary step of asking the institution for its views at the start of an investigation, which it already gave to the complainant, a practice which has led to delays in decision-making.
Removing this step allowed the Ombudsman to set up a procedure under which the complainant should have an answer from the Ombudsman within 40 working days of their complaint being received.
Also crucial is quick identification of FOI complaints and the creation of a separate dedicated team to process these complaints (on a separate ‘track’ from other complaints). The template for opening such Fast Track inquiries was pre-agreed with management and so can be issued quickly by the case team.
If the Ombudsman finds the EU institution or body was wrong to refuse access to the document she may recommend that it grant either full or partial access to the documents in question. This means that the complainant has the chance to receive the information they are looking while the information is still relevant and useful.
The main beneficiaries of this innovation are journalists, academics, researchers or anyone for whom the timely access to information from the EU institutions is important.
One of the goals of this innovation was to make EU institutions more responsive to the needs of those looking for access documents and to stop slow decision-making rendering the information irrelevant as it becomes out of date.
The new procedure started in pilot phase in autumn 2017 and was rolled out fully in February 2018. The Fast-Track procedure is now an integral part of the European Ombudsman’s case-handling scene, with three case-handlers working on it and has led to some important successes, including getting information to a complainant in time for them to react to draft legislation.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The project is innovative as, until it was introduced (in February 2018), the European Ombudsman office treated all complaints in the same manner. Internal analysis showed that there was a way of speeding up the procedure for handling access to document complaints by removing the normal intermediary step of asking the EU institution concerned for its views at the start of an investigation.
This is because by the time the complainant turns to the European Ombudsman, the EU institution will in general have already fully outlined its reasons for its decision to refuse or grant only partial access to the requested document(s).
Under the Fast-Track procedure, the Ombudsman aims to have a decision on the complaint within 40 working days. This is an innovation aimed at making the European Ombudsman office more relevant to academics, journalists and researchers as it increases the likelihood of the sought-for information being released in a timely manner.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The European Ombudsman office kept the main EU institutions informed of the steps, and consulted with them in order to ensure that they knew how and why we were introducing this procedure.
Keeping them informed meant there was more acceptance and understanding as to why were introducing the new procedure. It would have been too abrupt to simply introduce the procedure without any prior explanations.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
While anyone filing an access to document complaint to the European Ombudsman can be a beneficiary of the Fast-Track procedure, journalists and academics - for whom timely access to information is integral to their jobs - may benefit in particular.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
We have had around 80 inquiries using the Fast-Track procedure since it was introduced (For reference the office opens around 400 inquiries per year). The office is still developing internal methodologies to measure the impact.
We hope that as word spreads about the fast-track procedure and its successes, we will receive more access to documents requests.
Challenges and Failures
The Fast-Track procedure proved to be more popular than the office had hoped so instead of one person working on such access to document cases, we now have three. This posed a challenge as we needed more human resources than had been foreseen but as the benefits of the new system were so clear, it was relatively easy to restructure internally to make this happen.
Conditions for Success
The conditions for success are that your own organisation is fully aware and committed to the new initiative. It was also useful to inform the main EU institutions - i.e the institutions that receive the bulk of access to documents requests - of the new procedure and what it would entail for them. This ensured that the administration knew what to expect and there was no confusion about why we were implementing this new procedure.
We also set up a dedicated team to handle the Fast-Track procedure.
Other conditions for success include publicising the new policy (in a special briefing, in a press release, on social media) and highlighting the access to document complaints dealt with under the Fast-Track procedure in the Ombudsman’s annual report.
This Fast-Track procedure for access to documents requests might be replicable in other ombudsman offices if there is a way of shortening the steps taken in these inquiries without compromising the right of the public administration concerned to explain why it is not granting full access to the requested documents.
- The importance of fully explaining the procedural changes to all affected, including case-handlers; complainants and the public administration. Internally the new process was explained to case-handlers and a dedicated team was set up to take of the inquiries. The main EU institutions were also informed so there was no confusion about why were introducing the procedure. We publicised exactly how to the new procedure work in special briefing for journalists; in a press release and in an infograph Twitter. In our communication we were careful to not oversell the new initiative. In other words, we made it clear that the Ombudsman would aim to take a decision on whether the complainant should get the documents they want; it is then up to the institutions to release the document - in most cases the institutions do follow what the EO proposes. Additionally, it could be that following the inquiry, the EO agrees that the EU institution concerned was justified in not releasing the information.
5 March 2018