Posts Tagged ‘Open Government Journal’

Article: Problems at the Information Commissioner’s Office

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

UK’s openness watchdog lacks teeth and transparency (pdf 225kb)
Open Government Journal: Volume 1 Issue 3
7 December 2005
By Heather Brooke

  • Information Commissioner fails to meet his own deadline
  • Default position is secrecy

The UK watchdog charged with ensuring that public bodies obey the new Freedom of Information Act already has a huge backlog of appeals that will take years to clear. An even greater surprise is that these figures, along with early decisions, were withheld and were only made public after filing an FOI request.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 both came into force 1 January 2005. The two countries’ laws are similar but each country has its own Information Commissioner. In the UK, just over 22,000 FOI requests have been received between 1 January and 30 June 2005 by the 42 central government bodies monitored by the Department for Constitutional Affairs1. The Scottish Executive reported that from 1 January to 5 April it received approximately 900 requests for information that were centrally recorded by the Executive’s Freedom of Information unit.

Applicants must first exhaust a public authority’s internal review process before appealing to the Commissioner, even though in 79 per cent of cases, public authorities uphold their initial refusal. The table below shows the statistics for the UK and Scottish Information Commissioners as of 4 November 20052.

  UK Commissioner Percentage
of total received
Scottish Commissioner Percentage of total received
Closed cases 640 31% 99 21%
Decision notices 69 3 % 44 9%
Ongoing 1325 65% 327 70%
Total number of applications 2034   470  

Even at the quickest rate of issuing decisions – 16 in July, it will take the UK Commissioner more than eight years to clear the present backlog.

Whereas the Scottish Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, has committed to dealing with cases within four months, the UK commissioner has been reluctant to state any similar performance targets. However, at the Society of Editors conference in Cumbria 17 Oct 2005, Deputy Commissioner Graham Smith stated the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has now set a minimum target of resolving 50 percent of cases within 12 working weeks. But caseload data is not published on a regular basis, so there is no way of knowing if this most basic target is being met.

The Commissioner had four years to prepare for implementation of the FOIA. In addition, the ICO paid for a study published March 2004 (Hazell, 2004) by University College London’s Constitution Unit, which predicted the number of appeals and subsequent staff needed. The study forecast that between 1250 and 3000 appeals would be received during the first year – an entirely accurate prediction.

Not every request can be predicted, of course, but the most contentious were certainly well known. The Attorney General’s advice to Tony Blair on the Iraq War had been sought since March 2003, yet when the appeal came to Commissioner Richard Thomas, he was unable to commit to a date for delivering his verdict. In the end the information was leaked to the media. Restaurant inspections, fire safety inspections, and the names of MPs’ staff were all predicted as being major FOI test cases, and yet to date, the commissioner has failed to make a decision on appeals seeking exactly this type of data.