Friday, October 27, 2006

Information Commissioner publishes FOI progress report

The following ICO press release was published yesterday (they are doing better, but still have a long way to go):

Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, publishes a new report today to document the progress made by his office (ICO) in carrying out its duties under the Freedom of Information Act. The report highlights some of the powerful rulings the Commissioner has made on a wide range of issues including the cost of identity cards, Legionnaires disease, academic standards and salaries of senior officials.

Richard Thomas said: “It is extremely encouraging to see the positive impact the Freedom of Information Act is having on individuals. A great deal of information has been released since the introduction of the Act, which would not otherwise have been in the public domain. I was delighted that the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee concluded that Freedom of information was proving to be a significant success.”

Since the Act came into force the ICO has received over 4400 complaints and closed 72% of these cases. After a challenging first year the ICO has made clear and significant improvements to the way complaints are handled.

Productivity has increased significantly and an average of 245 cases are now closed each month (up from 140 in 2005/6). This is more than are received each month and the number of backlog cases is expected to go down to 450 by the end of the financial year.

The improvements have resulted from a new case reception unit, a complete re-structuring of complaints teams, new procedures, more active case management and the recruitment of extra staff on a temporary basis. However since the additional funding was agreed and temporary staff were recruited to clear the backlog the ICO has received 18% more complaints than were anticipated.

The ICO’s new approach balances the need for intellectual rigour against the operational focus of getting the job done. The challenge remains to apply the new act to a huge range of activities and circumstances, stretching across the entire public sector.

Richard Thomas said: “Our report shows that everyone involved with Freedom of information has been through a massive learning exercise. My staff are often confronted with complex cases and unfamiliar subject matter. We have radically overhauled the way we deal with complaints under the Act and this has resulted in a step change in performance. Alongside increased productivity, I am confident that the quality of our work has improved, notably our communications, investigations and decision notices. The financial assistance, provided to us by the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the spring of 2006, has enabled us to recruit additional temporary staff and speed up our complaints handling process. However, if we are to deal with higher than anticipated demand and maintain acceptable service standards the report signals that additional temporary funding in 2007/08 will be needed to allow us to retain trained temporary staff.”

The report also includes the ICO’s new enforcement strategy which sets out how a tougher approach will be used with recalcitrant public bodies from now on. Many public authorities have learnt from handling Freedom of information requests and have improved their systems for dealing with them. However, where public authorities are regularly or seriously failing to meet expected standards of good practice, the ICO will take appropriate action.

Freedom of information: ICO enforcement strategy (PDF)

Freedom of information: ICO progress report

Also see:
The Guardian - Watchdog asks for extra funds to deal with FoI backlog

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