Cabinet Office, FOI, Financial Times, Christopher Graham, blah blah blah
To recap. The Financial Times recently ran a resounding editorial on FOI, the ICO and the Cabinet Office, lauding the first, criticising the second’s lack of enforcement against the first, and lambasting the third. The Information Commissioner himself, Christopher Graham, replied in rather hurt tones, defending his office. Both Paul Gibbons (FOIMan) and Tim Turner have blogged on this. Here are my oar-sticking-in-coattail-hanging observations.
A key measure used by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to assess public authorities’ compliance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) is the percentage of requests which are responded to within the statutory twenty day timescales. The guidance on this says
The ICO is may contact authorities [sic] if…(for those authorities which publish data on timeliness) – it appears that less than 85% of requests are receiving a response within the appropriate timescales.
Let’s ignore the obvious and worrying point that this is an encouragement not to publish such data. Fortunately for our purposes, government departments do commit to doing so, and quarterly reports covering the whole of central government are published. I can’t actually find them all on one page, so here are the reports for the last four quarters
If you scroll through those datasets you’ll see that, over the last four quarters, the Cabinet Office has managed to respond to FOI requests within the statutory time limit or with a permitted extension in 92, 93, 95 and 86% of cases. Pretty good eh? This keeps them out of reach of the ICO radar. And, in fact, just prior to this, the Cabinet Office had been monitored by the ICO, and been required to sign an undertaking to improve, after appalling previous statistics had showed compliance in only 42 and 55% of cases in two quarters. After this monitoring period (the MoD were also monitored) the ICO announced
Both authorities have now improved their response times with over 85% of information requests being answered within the time limit of 20 working days and are working hard to deal with outstanding requests where responses have been unduly delayed. The ICO will continue to offer support and advice to help both Departments to ensure that outstanding requests are cleared as soon as possible.
However, what does “with a permitted extension” mean? It means, that in complex cases where a public authority needs more time to consider whether the public interest favours disclosure, it can disapply the twenty-working-day deadline and extend its time for compliance indefinitely, subject to reasonableness (although the ICO says it should be no more than an extra 20 days, he cannot enforce that). So let’s go back to those figures and see how the Cabinet Office would do if there wasn’t this potential loophole. If one simply asks “what percentage of requests were responded to within 20 working days?”, the figures are in fact 77, 77, 79 and 74%. Of course, without access to individual cases it is impossible to say whether these multiple extensions to consider public interest were made legitimately or not. However, the Cabinet Office appears to claim the extension much more than most other departments (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has similar figures, however).
I am sure the Cabinet Office will claim that the reason it does this is because it has to deal with more complex cases. Maybe that’s the case, but it would be nice if someone could look into it. And, of course, the ICO could. The guidance on how authorities are selected for monitoring doesn’t stop at the 85%-compliance measure. It also says they may contact authorities if
our analysis of complaints received by the ICO suggests that we have received three or more complaints citing delays within a specific authority within a six month period [or if there is] Evidence of a possible problem in the media or other external sources.
To which I say, ICO, the evidence is clear (look at Tim’s analysis, look at Paul’s, even look again at Chris Cook’s). Compliance stats are not the only measure (and even then they may hide the true picture). The triggers for enforcement are there, but is there a will?