Tag Archive for ICO

Openness by Design: less fluff please

FOIMan comments on the ICO’s new draft FOI strategy ‘Openness by Design’.

A few weeks ago the ICO published its draft strategy for FOI and access to information over the next three years. It is still open for consultation until 8 March so if you have a view on the strategy, make sure you submit a response.

I’ve been reading it with a view to doing the same, but I thought I’d make some initial comments here.

The strategy focuses on five priorities:

  • Work in partnership to improve standards of openness, transparency and participation among public authorities in a digital age.
  • Provide excellent customer service to members of the public and public authorities and lead by example in fulfilling our statutory functions.
  • Raise awareness of access to information rights and make it even easier for the public to exercise their rights.
  • Promote the reform of access to information legislation so it remains fit for purpose.
  • Develop and sustain our international collaboration.

It’s hard to disagree with these statements of intent but that’s because they’re pretty bland – with a few tweaks they could have been copied and pasted from pretty much any corporate strategy document (the Scottish Commissioner’s strategic plan for 2016-2020 lists some very similar priorities, but they are worded more specifically). It would be good to see something more meaningful being promised. There are certainly opportunities to do more on FOI so it is not that there is nothing to say.

The more detailed exploration of these strategic goals is more enlightening. There are some hints of changes in approach (such as the collection of ‘systematic feedback’ from applicants and authorities). Strategic priorities are listed. The most striking of these are plans to develop a self-assessment toolkit; assessing the feasibility of transparency impact assessments along the same lines as Data Protection Impact Assessments; promoting digital means to enhance transparency; and building the case for changes to FOI (see my last post for more on that).

Much of this is laudable in principle but is a bit, well, er…fluffy. Do we really need the ICO to develop a ‘service charter’ to improve matters? If money is tight on the FOI side why is so much attention given to international relationships (I appreciate I’m starting to sound like the ERG here, but it’s a fair question)? Given the volume of requests that many authorities are struggling with, should the ICO really be devoting more of its scarce resources to increasing awareness amongst the public of FOI (it is part of the Commissioner’s statutory role to do that, but is it a priority over other things at present?)?

Come to that, why only ‘assess the feasibility’ of impact assessments? The Commissioner has been talking about them for almost a year so shouldn’t they have assessed the concept already? The few concrete ideas mentioned in the strategy seem to involve adding extra red tape to the FOI and openness process – whether it be impact assessments or self-assessment toolkits.

There’s lots of talk of ‘working in partnership’ with stakeholders, ‘using feedback’ and ‘develop engagement channels’. But aren’t the ICO already doing this? Some of the priorities outlined are so vague and amorphous that it is hard to know what they really mean.

One of the things that struck me when I was researching The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook was how little support practitioners get in doing their jobs. The ICO rightly points out that FOI’s benefits are not always recognised by public authorities, and that too much energy is spent on complaining about its cost. But my concern is that this strategy in its present form is not going to help win practitioners and their colleagues over, nor help them to improve their performance.

And there are specific and measurable things that the ICO could do to help practitioners and foster a more positive attitude to openness.

For a start, look at the Scottish Commissioner’s Office. I’m sure they’re not perfect, and they don’t have as wide a remit, nor is their constituency as large. However, with the limited resources they have they do a lot. The UK ICO could do worse than to look at the things they do:

  • collect and publish FOI stats– at the very least I’d like to see some solid commitments to enforcing the new code of practice requirements on authorities to publish these (the Commissioner talked about looking at the publication of statistics in the same speech a year ago in which she discussed impact assessments, so shouldn’t they have some meaty ideas by now?)
  • publish more guidance on the practicalities of FOI compliance (there is a mention of this in the strategy to be fair to the ICO)
  • highlight the learning from recent decisions in accessible ways, such as the Scottish ICO’s weekly round-ups and associated tweets
  • be seen to take on even the most powerful public authorities if they are not cooperating. I don’t need to bang on about certain government departments as plenty of others better placed than me to comment (as here and here) have done that. I understand that sometimes there may be more effective means than formal action to move things on, but it would be good if this strategy gave some indication of a new approach and what the ICO is prepared to do in the face of intransigence.

In short, practitioners need more concise and usable guidance; they need practical assistance; they need to be able to compare their performance to others; they need to know that if they tell their colleagues that they should comply, that they won’t look silly when government departments are let off the hook.

The ICO claim that one of their values is to be ambitious. I think they should put more emphasis on being ‘service focussed’ and in particular provide some more quality support for practitioners. Without educated and empowered practitioners, everything else in FOI falls apart. At the same time, where an authority is not playing ball, there needs to be less partnership and more confrontation. Get the basics right and everything else will follow.

The above comments may be unfair criticism of what is intended to be a high level declaration of intent. However, whether it be here or elsewhere, the ICO need to demonstrate that they are going to promote and enforce FOI compliance in a more practical and active way.

Extend FOI says Information Commissioner

FOIMan reports on a new report from the Information Commissioner calling for FOI to be extended to cover a wider range of bodies.

Two weeks ago the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched a consultation on its access to information strategy, Openness by Design. One of the five priorities outlined in the strategy was to:

Promote the reform of access to information legislation so it remains fit for purpose.

Wasting no time, the ICO have laid a report before Parliament called ‘Outsourcing Oversight: the case for reforming access to information law’. The report highlights examples of access to information laws – primarily FOI and EIR – failing to facilitate scrutiny of public service provision, from information about reinstatement works following the London Olympics to fire safety inspections of hospitals and other public facilities. The report uses case studies like these, together with polling data and commissioned research to support its conclusions.

The report recommends that:

  • a Select Committee inquiry into the issues raised (to which one is tempted to echo the infamous Brenda’s reaction to hearing that the 2017 general election had been called – ‘what, another one?’)
  • the government use its s.5 powers to use secondary legislation to make contractors subject to FOI where they are carrying out public functions; it proposes criteria for deciding whether this should happen
  • a greater number of organisations carrying out public functions are made subject to FOI via the same route, and that this should happen more frequently; the report specifically draws attention to housing associations, Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers
  • EIR should be amended to allow its provisions to be extended to contractors in the same way as FOI
  • FOI and EIR should be amended to indicate what information regarding a public sector contract is held for FOI/EIR purposes
  • a legal requirement to regularly report on the legislation’s coverage should be introduced
  • the government should conduct a review of proactive publication requirements in relation to public sector contracts including publication scheme provisions.

All of these recommendations are, of course, to be welcomed by anyone who supports greater transparency of public institutions. The report, and particularly the supporting research, will no doubt keep debate on this subject alive. The rub will be whether any of this will actually happen at a time when government has a few other things on its collective mind (and will do for some considerable time to come).

Delving Deeper into Denham’s Drive for a Duty to Document

FOIMan examines the Information Commissioner’s proposals for a new duty to document.

In December, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, gave a speech at an event celebrating 250 years of freedom of information. During the speech Ms. Denham indicated that she wanted the government to legislate for a “duty to document”.

I wrote briefly about this at the time. But in my latest piece for PDP’s Freedom of Information Journal (available here), I’ve looked further into the Information Commissioner’s proposals.

Amongst the issues explored are:

  • what effect FOI has had on public sector records management;
  • how the Information Tribunals have dealt with the issue of records management;
  • what problems is the Commissioner seeking to resolve;
  • what tools are available to the Commissioner now;
  • and finally, are there any existing duties to document along the lines that Elizabeth Denham suggests?

What would an archivist do as information commissioner?

FOIMan reports on his first encounter with the new Information Commissioner.
Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner

Elizabeth Denham, speaking at the FOI at 250 event

One of the things that struck me most when Elizabeth Denham was appointed Information Commissioner earlier this year was her background. After the career bureaucrat that Chris Graham represented, her background as an archivist and records manager seemed particularly refreshing. And not least because that’s (ahem) my background too. One of the things I’ve been wondering ever since is whether, and how, this would affect her approach as Commissioner. What would an archivist use the position of Information Commissioner to achieve?

Last night I was fortunate to be able to attend a panel discussion celebrating the 250th anniversary of FOI, and the answer was forthcoming. It was my first opportunity to hear Ms. Denham in person. She drew a clear line in the sand with what had gone before. In particular she laid out two aims in relation to FOI.

Firstly – and a thousand archivists punch the air – she announced that she would be seeking to persuade government to introduce a statutory record-keeping requirement. In answers to questions it became clear that she saw this as an answer to the decline of registries. She also mentioned other jurisdictions that already have this kind of legislation, notably in Australia.

Secondly – and a hundred thousand FOI campaigners punch the air – she indicated her intention to pursue the extension of FOI to private sector contractors. “We should extend the right to know about public service so it is independent of the service provider”, she said.

Ms. Denham told us that Parliament would receive a report from her office in 2017 pushing both of these agenda. This is a Commissioner like we’ve never seen before – a campaigning, activist ombudsman. Whether it will achieve more than the pragmatic, softly, softly approach that appeared to characterise her predecessor we will have to wait and see. But it is certainly a refreshing and exhilarating change.

With thanks to Article 19 and the Information Law and Policy Centre at the IALS for organising the event.

Is the ICO fit for purpose?

FOIMan summarises the outcome of the government’s long-awaited Triennial Review of the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The government has finally published its Triennial Review of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The long-awaited report concludes that:

  • the ICO still has an important role to play
  • it needs to adjust to the challenges of developing technology
  • it should still report to a sponsoring department in government rather than the Commissioner becoming an officer of Parliament
  • its structure should change to a board of commissioners – in line with a recommendation made by the Leveson Inquiry
  • the government and ICO should quickly agree a more sustainable funding approach especially for DP activities.

Along the way, the report highlights criticism from many stakeholders which is familiar to long-term observers in this field – that the ICO aren’t tough enough at enforcement, that they go for the easy targets, and that the quality of guidance and assistance from the ICO can be inconsistent and sometimes poor. Nonetheless the report also discusses the achievements of the ICO in reducing backlogs and providing necessary expertise. It also recognises some of the challenges that the ICO has faced in recent years.

Overall, I suspect the ICO won’t be unhappy with the report and especially the recognition that whilst changes are necessary, government needs to put its hand in its pocket to pay for a more effective regulator. For more details, read the published report.

Source: Triennial Review of the ICO, 8 November 2016

Postscript: the government has rejected the proposal to restructure the ICO as a multi-commissioner board.

Source: statement by Minister of State for Digital and Culture, Matt Hancock MP