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The new Commissioner's challenge

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Martin Rosenbaum | 13:34 UK time, Friday, 3 July 2009

The Information Commissioner's Office in Wilmslow is situated in an area popular with the purveyors of very fast cars, but its operations don't always seem to be speeding along the fast lane.

The new commissioner for the UK, Chris Graham, took up his post this week - and one of his main challenges will be to tackle the lengthy backlog of cases that the office has been struggling with.

The ICO has been strongly attacked today by the Campaign for Freedom of Information over the extensive delays before it issues formal decisions.

In the worst case identified by CFoI, the commissioner's decision notice was issued three years and 10 and a half months after the complaint was made. (My own oldest appeal has only been with the commissioner's office for three years and nine and a half months, and I'm still waiting on that one, so I don't know whether it might seize the record).

Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information ComplaintsThis is one example in a painstaking analysis [280Kb PDF] compiled by the campaign group of the time taken by the ICO to rule on those cases which involve formal decision notices.

The group's report [559Kb PDF] shows that the average wait between a complaint arriving and a decision notice was nearly 20 months.

The ICO states [46Kb PDF] that it is trying to speed up its processes and that most cases are resolved informally and more quickly. But the campaign argues that many of these complaints are trivial and it is the significant ones which are most likely to require decision notices.

Chris Graham ran the Advertising Standards Authority before becoming Information Commissioner, so he has experience of leading a complaints-handling body. We will see in due course whether this helps him speed up the time-consuming processes without undermining the quality of formal decisions, which has improved since the first couple of years.

The ICO published a new strategy [81Kb PDF] for considering FOI complaints last month. This shows that it will be trying to resolve an even greater number of cases informally in order to increase its productivity.

It will also be interesting to see whether Mr Graham adopts a more aggressive public stance towards pushing the Ministry of Justice for more resources. Matt Davies at FoiNews thinks he may already be detecting signs of a new, more outspoken approach.

Of course, delays in the freedom of information process are not limited to the ICO.

Last year, central government exceeded the recommended time limit for reviewing freedom of information appeals in one in three cases.

Third Annual Report on the operation of the FOI Act in Central Government 2007If you think you've read that sentence before, you may well be right. I wrote exactly the same sentence last year about the government's FOI statistics for 2007 [1.10Mb PDF]. And this still applies to the 2008 statistics [1.04MbKb PDF] which were published last week.

But the credibility of the commissioner in cracking down on delays in government is seriously undermined as long as his own office is taking an excessive time to deal with many complaints.

Update 1408: The ICO tells me that the letter to Matt Davies is "not indicative of any policy change".


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