Info Commissioner admits 'It's going to be tough'

Improving FoI compliance - with extreme prejudice

Information commissioner Christopher Graham says his organisation has sent out a 'shock wave' to improve FoI compliance.

Admittedly the weather forecast is poor, but thunder, lightning and torrential rain accompanies GC's interview with the information commissioner at his Wilmslow offices. "Welcome to the north-west," says Graham. The newly refurbished building of the Information Commissioner's Office provides adequate shelter from the weather, but this is easier than avoiding the effects of the financial storm which has left public spending cuts in its wake.

"We are in line to be cut like everybody else," Graham confirms. "Now I get just over £5m for freedom of information (FoI) through grant in aid from the Ministry of Justice, and that's what stands to be cut. By how much? Well, we wait to see."

A hint of sunshine is that a second revenue stream, for data protection, is unlikely to be affected. The bulk of the commissioner's near £17m budget is generated by notification fees for data protection. Small concerns, sole traders for example, pay £35, while for large organisations this climbs to £500.

"At least it does help that we have these two streams of income," concedes Graham. "Although we have to keep them separate, there are other things that get apportioned between the two streams."

This fiscal challenge has coincided with an increase in the workload. Graham says his office has never been busier, due to its higher profile following publicity about MPs' expenses and the loss of the child benefit records. Last year saw a 20 per cent increase in FoI cases and 39 per cent more cases closed compared with the previous 12 months.

"And then, of course, there has been a change of government and suddenly information rights has shot right up the agenda," he says. "I am not making a political point. It's about the times we live in. We are now doing everything online and so people have seen all the good things that can happen because of that, but they are also aware of what can happen when it goes wrong.

"So this is a concern – information rights, people's concern about privacy and respect for personal data are very political issues. Politicians have caught up with that, as they tend to do.

He adds that this also fits in with the "political synthesis" which arises from the coalition. "This is territory on which both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives could find common ground, and I'm sure that's why it is higher up the political agenda."

But he is enthusiastic about what he sees as a coming-together of circumstances and believes his office in now in an exciting place. Furthermore, he sees himself as fortunate in being able to settle into his role before the new government "started looking in our direction and asking how we could contribute".

Graham, a former director general of the Advertising Standards Authority and BBC journalist, began his five year term in office in June 2009. Although he thinks it would be a bit of a cliché to say his first year had been a steep learning curve, he admits that the information rights agenda is complicated and there was a lot to master.

He also found that the ICO's technical expertise was largely limited to forensics. At a hearing of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee in May he said that, although this was useful in investigations into illegal databases, he wanted more technical expertise to help "spot the next big thing before it becomes a huge problem".

Asked about progress on this, he hints at budgetary restraints: "Well, we are working out how in a period of cuts and retrenchment we can strengthen the technological know-how within the organisation."

The current intention is to have an external technology advisory group, as well as an in-house technical adviser who may want to recruit a small team of three or four people.

"I'm not going to try and invent the wheel," Graham says. "There is an awful lot of technical expertise out there, it's just that we are not always best placed to interpret it."

There was also the challenge of getting to grips with FoI processing, which he feared was in danger of grinding to a halt. A study by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, published around the time of Graham's appointment, revealed that it was taking an average of eight months before an investigation into a complaint even began. The longest delayed decision had taken nearly four years and was still going on.

Although Graham believes that it was natural for everyone involved to be cautious during the first five years of FoI, the result was an "almighty queue at the information commissioner's door".

"No, after you Claude"

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