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ICO Threatens Central Government FOI Audits

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The new information commissioner plans to crack the whip on Whitehall departments over lax freedom of information compliance

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has suggested the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) could increase its scrutiny of central government departments’ compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests, and is already carrying out an audit of an unnamed department.

Her remarks arrive as new government figures indicate a number of central government departments failed to ensure at least 85 percent of requests were answered within 20 days during the most recent quarterly reporting period.

More audits

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Under the ICO’s guidelines the office doesn’t closely monitor adherence if organisations pass the 85 percent threshold, but Denham said that figure was “a little low”.

“That seems a little low in my estimate so there may be some areas where I need to go in and do some more audits,” she said. “I know which organisations we need to focus on… We’re already doing an audit, I just won’t say where.”

Denham noted that the ICO’s budget for FOI compliance had been cut by 30 percent over the past three years, limiting its resources, and said this had contributed to negligent behaviour by Whitehall.

“I think that central government though has got away with – I’m not going to say murder – I think they’ve got away with behaviour that needs to be adjusted,” she said.

Denham, who took office in July, spoke at a conference commemorating the 250th anniversary of a statute passed by Sweden and Finland held to be the first freedom of information law.

Text message decision-making

She spoke in favour of instituting a “positive legislative duty” to record decision-making as a response to the challenges posed by an era of communication by text message and email.

“If public authorities were put under a positive legislative duty to record important decisions and how those decisions were made, to note those reasons, to write things down, to document things, then I think it would really assist our FOI rights,” she said.

Another possible change could see third parties contracted by the government put under the same FOI obligations as the government itself, she said.

“Whether public or whether it’s private or third sector organisations that are delivering the service the public right to know should stand unchallenged,” she said, adding the ICO plans to submit a report on outsourcing and transparency to Parliament next year.

The latest government figures indicate several central government departments fell below the 85 percent threshold for answering requests within 20 days in the quarter from July to September, including the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) at 65 percent, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) at 57 percent, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) at 79 percent and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) at 78 percent.

The Wales Office, the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Health fared better at 100 percent while the Cabinet Office responded to 91 percent of requests on time.

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