28 March 2023
Warren Seddon is ICO Director of Freedom of Information and Transparency responsible for the ICO’s freedom of information (FOI) policy and guidance. Warren also oversees the handling of people’s complaints to the ICO over public authorities’ responses to requests for information under the FOI Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
It’s just over a year since my first blog when I said that I wanted to keep you up to date on how we are improving our service, including how we will tackle our backlog of cases.
So as we approach the end of the financial year, I want to take this opportunity to share some good news on where we have got to on the latter, before moving onto what this means for our efforts to improve the service we deliver.
A record breaking year
Timeliness is often essential when it comes to accessing public information and we know that we have not been playing our role in that well enough, an issue we committed to resolve when we launched ICO25, our new strategic plan. In April 2022, our caseload stood at 2,295 cases, well above the approximately 1,250 cases we had at the start of each of the three years before the pandemic. This meant it was taking us far too long to allocate and close cases.
Thanks to the hard work put in by our FOI team, we will be entering 2023-24 with a caseload that is lower than it has been since the early days of the FOI Act (the lowest it had been in the previous decade was 823 in 2015 and even going back to 2011, when the total number of cases we received was under 4,500, we had over 1,000 cases in our live caseload). As I write we have around 800 live cases in our system, meaning that we have got the caseload down by almost two-thirds over the last 12 months.
We’ve reduced premature complaints by making improvements to our digital complaint form, allowing staff to focus on the substantive complaints we receive, reviewed our processes to streamline them wherever possible, and empowered the team to close cases quickly wherever appropriate. Our FOI team delivered more decision notices by far than in any other year of the ICO’s history, which was a key part in reducing our complaints backlog. Well over 2,500 decision notices have been issued so far, almost double what we have achieved in our most productive previous years.
So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank both the FOI casework team who have delivered this work, as well as all those across the ICO that have supported us in our efforts to not just clear a backlog, but put us in a position where we can really deliver a step-change in future performance.
Importantly, while we have trialled a number of new ways of working over the last few months to support our approach, we have not seen a disproportionate increase in the number of appeals to the Information Tribunal. We know, however, that it has been a really tough period. We have placed additional pressure on some public authorities with larger than normal complaint volumes to ensure we clear the backlog. I’d like to thank them for their efforts over the last few months, as well as the patience of those people that have made complaints that have taken too long for us to resolve.
We’ve made some mistakes along the way, but we have learnt from these and are taking account of them as we develop our new ways of working for the long term. But overall we are now in a position where we can offer better services to people, where we can really balance the need for pace of decision with a proportionality of approach and quality of outcome for every case we receive.
It is important to acknowledge that, despite the achievements outlined, there are still some challenges that we will take into 2023-24. Although we have focussed on not just clearing cases, but also making sure we get the age profile of our caseload down, we still have cases that are older than we want or consider acceptable. In part we were affected by recent Machinery of Government changes that affected departments where some of our oldest cases sit, and we are confident that we will close these down in the early stages of the next financial year.
We are also putting together a bespoke plan for the Cabinet Office, which although only having around 3% of the cases we received in this financial year, represents well over 10% of our total current caseload. There are a number of reasons for this, including the complexity and volume of requests the Cabinet Office receives, as well as capacity issues both at the ICO and at Cabinet Office during and since the pandemic to progress cases at different points.
The discussions we are having with the Cabinet Office have been constructive and we hope to have a plan in place soon both for clearing old cases, while ensuring new complaints about the Cabinet Office receive the same levels of service as the rest of the public sector.
The achievements of the last few months mean that we are well placed to deliver a much better service as part of our ICO25 commitments. To help achieve this we have published the response to our consultation on prioritisation and as the Commissioner says in his foreword the feedback we have received,
‘has been instrumental in creating a prioritisation framework that will stand up to the rigours of the real world and will be a key part of improving our FOI casework services for everyone’.
I’d like to thank everyone that responded to the consultation. We have made a number of changes as outlined in the response to significant points of detail. The approach to prioritisation will sit at the heart of our new operating model, which we are developing at the moment and that we will adapt in light of practical experience over the next 12 months. We will publish and update information related to the new operating model at relevant points over the next year. It is important to note, however, that in part the delivery of prioritisation will rely as much on the public authorities we receive complaints about as what we do ourselves. We will be doing our part by adding pace at every opportunity in our case handling, but we will need similar efforts by public bodies as part of their organisational commitment to transparency and ensuring they are complying with their legal obligations effectively. This is something we will keep under review.
Importantly, the efforts we have made in reducing the caseload will also allow us to continue the important work we have started with the implementation of our new Regulatory Manual. Traditionally, the ICO has been funded to be more of an Ombudsman or complaint handler, rather than a systemic regulator, for our FOI work. The limited funds we receive mean that we have had to focus on reactively managing complaints, rather than being able to conduct more systemic or upstream regulation to improve the quality of performance across the public sector.
So in reviewing our processes, we have actively worked to create more space for the use of our wider powers at the same time as clearing the backlog. This month we have issued our second enforcement notice under the new approach, as well as further practice recommendations. Indeed, it is likely that by the time we have reached the 12-month anniversary of the new manual being published, we will have issued double the number of enforcement notices and practice recommendations as we had in the previous 17 years since the FOI Act was introduced.
This is a real achievement, and I’d like to end by thanking our FOI team once again for their efforts in helping deliver it. I hope you agree that we have made real progress over the last 12 months and the final figures will of course be set out in our annual report later this year. But we won’t rest on our laurels. There is more we want to do to as part of ICO25 to improve our service and, as I promised in that first blog, I’ll keep you up to date on what we are doing over the coming months.