Transparency’s a marvellous thing isn’t it? These days we can find out what goes on in all sorts of meetings across the public sector. One example is the way we get to eavesdrop on what the FOI and DP regulator is saying internally.
If grant in aid was cut further, action on anything other than routine freedom of information enquiries would be impossible.
Bearing in mind how poorly paid many of its staff appear to be, and its increasing struggle for funding, it must be said that the ICO punches above its weight. The constant churn of new guidance, Codes, initiatives, decisions, undertakings, penalties suggests an organisation that is working hard and effectively. Much of my work as a trainer and consultant (not to mention blogger) is informed by their publications. I know from my own experience that the work the Commissioner’s Office has done to raise awareness of data protection and privacy issues is making a difference, and monetary penalties are focussing minds. The progress made by the Commissioner was noted last year by the Justice Select Committee. Christopher Graham, whilst occasionally rubbing people up the wrong way (and perhaps this is actually a symptom of his success) has achieved wonders in reducing the backlog of complaints.
Nobody’s saying it is perfect – I’ve occasionally criticised it. All organisations make mistakes – they are, after all, staffed by human beings. The sheer volume and scale of the ICO’s work means that statistically they’re occasionally going to call something wrong. And given that much of information rights law is open to interpretation, it is inevitable that there will be differences as to how the law should be applied at times. (And of course, it’s much easier to criticise from the boundary – harder to be the team out there playing the game).
Now Mr Graham says that the regulation of FOI is under threat due to successive cuts in funding. This is a major limitation on the effectiveness of FOI. We often forget that before 2005, most commentators expected FOI to be a damp squib. That it hasn’t been is at least partly due to a regulator prepared to challenge the status quo. Remember it was the Information Commissioner that ruled in favour of Cabinet minutes, risk registers and Prince Charles’ correspondence being disclosed, and often used his resources to argue the case further through lengthy appeal processes in the courts.
If the ICO is not properly funded, it is in my view at least as great a threat to FOI as attempts to water down the legislation (which are at least subject to a degree of Parliamentary scrutiny). Political parties that claim to support FOI and transparency (ie all of them, publicly at least) must commit to properly fund the office if elected to govern next year.
Things could get worse. The European Union’s proposed Data Protection Regulation would end the requirement to notify the Commissioner each year, and more importantly the annual fee that currently involves. If that happens, the ICO may be completely dependent on funding from Government in future. Given the current state of affairs, that is not an encouraging thought.