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  • Do the numbers make anything clearer?

    Posted on March 19th, 2010 admin No comments
    Mr Graham: The age old debate of quality v quantity

    Mr Graham: The age old debate of quality v quantity

    Since Christopher Graham took over the hot seat at the Information Commissioner’s Office there has appeared to outsiders to be a somewhat unseemly haste to get down the number of outstanding FoI appeals.

    We all know that the geological timeframe it was taking to get Decision Notices out of the ICO was causing frustration on all sides and was one of the things Mr Graham said he would aim to improve.

    Well nobody can complain that he hasn’t been a man of his word. The number of Decision Notices issued has increased, yet the grumbling from both applicants and respondents has not gone away.

    Why? Because some people feel that there has been a clear trade off between quality and quantity, and while the number of Decision Notices issued has clearly increased the quality of those decisions has been on the decline.

    It is a very difficult thing to prove. But I have made an effort to have a look at the trees rather than the wood by getting some figures from the ICO’s office about the number of Decision Notices it has dealt with.

    What is clear from the figures is that Mr Graham’s vow to get to grips with the backlog of complaints has been followed through. When he took over in June 2009 the FoI caseload stood at 1,508 and by February this year that had been reduced to 1,057.

    This is in some ways explained by a huge increase in the number of Decision Notices issued. In the 2008/09 financial year there were a total of 295 DNs. In the first eleven months of this financial year – Mr Graham started in the third month of the financial year – there have already been 538, and November 2009 saw a record number of 102 DNs issued.

    Some might say that part of this increase was due to the crystallisation of the BBC’s derogation, where the High Court’s ruling effectively pulled the rug from under a great number of appeals.

    But what is probably more significant is the movement away from issuing DNs and an increasing reliance on informal resolution. The comparable figures for disputes resolved informally is 1,490 in 2008/09 rising to 2,038 in the first 11 months of this financial year.

    So we have a situation where with still a month to go this year we have had an extra 243 DNs issued and an additional 548 resolved informally.

    Critics suggest that the increasing reliance on informal resolution is short-sighted as the system needs fully reasoned DNs so that people can use these as guidance for the future. Others state that some of the informal resolutions have been the complete opposite of DNs that have already been posted and as such ought to have been made public.

    But how can we assess if this undoubted increase in quantity has been matched by a reduction in quality? Not an easy task, but one way might be to look at the number of appeals lodged at the Tribunal, where one party clearly believes the Information Commissioner has made an error in assessing the case.

    The number of appeals lodged at the Tribunal has increased from 87 last year to 145 in the first eleven months of this year.

    So we have a situation where the number of DN’s has increased 82% and the number going to Tribunal has increased by 67%. This would seem to suggest that there has not been a disproportionate drop in the quality of the DNs.

    However, I think we need more time to get a clearer picture of the situation and my own feelings are that the quality of DNs is falling. What really annoys me is that, if this is true, it is such a short-term approach to the problem. Because what will happen is that more people will appeal and more resources in the ICO’s office will be taken up defending poor decisions leaving fewer people to deal with complaints and the whole vicious spiral will start up all over again.

    But for now Mr Graham must be feeling quite pleased with himself. So much so that perhaps he might get a bonus at the end of the year. I wonder if getting the caseload down was one of his targets? Perhaps that’s a question I should be asking.

    For those of you interested I have posted the ICO’s figures Decision numbers and here Decision numbers 2. You can see a full history of this request on WhatDoTheyKnow here.