Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Information Commissioner's business case to the DCA

In his evidence (see from Q42) to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee inquiry into FOI the Information Commissioner discussed in some detail with the MPs on the Committee the issue of the backlog (the ICO estimate to be 700 cases- "unallocated cases"), their recovery plan and their business case to the DCA (their sponsoring dept) for an extra £1.13M to clear the backlog.

A blog reader (thanks David) has made a request to the ICO for the business case. The ICO have now decided they are in a position to release: "the ICO has received a number of requests for this document but has not previously disclosed it as it was felt that its release would be likely to be prejudicial to the discussions which are still ongoing with the DCA over funding and resource issues, based heavily on the information contained in this document. After careful and lengthy consideration however it was decided that the discussions with the DCA have now progressed sufficiently for it to be released."

Download the business case (PDF)

Whilst there has been much criticism over the last year, this document does help paint a slightly more positive picture in terms of the ICO being aware of the problems, taking steps to improve.

It is useful to note the time taken to close cases is clearly set out and a target has been set for improvement: "The corporate target for 2005-06 is to close 50% of cases within 60 working days. At 31 December 2005, 48% of cases had been closed within this time. We project that we will be within +/- 5% of the target by the year end."

(In Scotland the legislation is different as the Act sets a target - "Section 49 (3) of the of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002"- states that the Commissioner must make a decision in relation to an application before the expiry of four months after receiving it or ‘before the expiry of such other period as is reasonable in the circumstances’.)

Though it is unclear whether the DCA have yet granted the request in part or in full the ICO would seem deserving of some extra funds given some of the problems outlined before (geographical position of the office, salary levels etc), however 2006 is a crucial year for FOI - the public do have a right to a better standard of service and levels of enforcement than has been seen in 2005 (especially when comparing over the border in Scotland). There are signs in 2006 that the nature and quality of decisions are improving and delivering real advances for FOI.

Why is the ICO in this situation? Putting aside some of the "mis-management" causes my view is that the problems at the ICO were also driven by some external factors, and that some of these could have been assesed and addressed in more detail:

-the long 5 year lead-in time meant many complex requests were stored up and were ready to be unleashed in 2005, leading to complex complaints (This lead in was out of the ICO's control)

-the Act was retrospective and thus compounded the problem (for e.g. the Irish Act in comparison was not retrospective)

- the Internet age means it is "easier" for requests and complaints to be sent than in previous eras. High volumes of correspondence can easily be sent by email. The comparison with overseas examples had to balanced against this situation that the UK was the first major FOI implementation of the Internet age. The issue of managing public expectation in the Internet age is complex (see the Work Foundation report on ICT & public services)

-The levels of suspicion and dissatisfcation with politicians and public services (e.g.: Survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life & Cabinet Office public attitudes to public services survey) meant that high levels of complaints were likely, challenging any perceived breach of the Act

-The ICO did not forsee the general level of interest in the whole FOI process and did make enogh information publicly available about their procceses and the decisions being made. They then became subject to further FOI requests themselves that only served to stretch resources further.

and on the issue of e-government:
-The ICO did not try to use the opportunity their website gave them to streamline the complaints via a clearly flagged online form system. Whilst it is to be accepted that they have no statutory powers to insist forms could be used a much clearer step by step process on the website could have attracted a high % and allowed for much earlier assessment of "information gaps" and complaint validity.

Interested to have comments posted below

No comments: