Friday 17 December 2010

Support your local ICO

As I browsed through the racks of charitable Xmas cards recently, I wondered why it is that other deserving causes don’t raise money in this way. If public authorities are really facing the financial cosh, then perhaps they’ll be soon employing fundraising officers as well as audit teams.

And then I read the minutes of some recent management meetings held at the Information Commissioner’s Office, and I began to appreciate just how the new budgetary restrictions were likely to hit them.

Take the minutes of the Executive Team's meeting, held on 2 November, for example. This team is responsible for office-wide leadership, articulation of operational policies and ensuring the office is effectively and efficiently managed. Particular areas of responsibility include primary oversight of the ICO's activities, such as development of the Corporate and Business Plans. Heady stuff. What it considers must be significant, then. It noted that a further in-year reduction in grant in aid (for the ICO’s freedom of information work) had been requested by the Ministry of Justice.

Next, the participants considered a couple of issues arising from the Joint Committee meeting with trade union representatives of the 26 October. In particular it was noted that union feedback on plans to withdraw free teabags and milk had been negative but ET considered that these needed to go ahead. In addition there were concerns about the ICO exploring the possibility of charging staff for car parking. This investigative work would go ahead informed by the survey recently launched as part of a travel plan exercise. Decisions had not actually been made on whether to charge or not.

I get free hot beverages from vending machines at work, so I do appreciate the concern that such facilities are not also available to the ICO’s staff. And, as a child of an era before Margaret Thatcher removed it, I also remember drinking (but not necessarily enjoying) my free school milk. Oh, I also get free car parking too. And I would also be pretty miffed if this perk were to be removed without any corresponding increase in salary.

The next item for consideration by the Executive Team raised a smile on my face. Clarification had been sought on the listening to music by staff whilst at work. ET agreed that listening to music was acceptable if it helped staff work better and so long as it did not disturb other staff and was not inappropriate to their work (for example they were not working on a helpline). I must admit that I don’t mind listening to my own music, but other people’s musical tastes can really grate – and really interfere with my thought process. When I’m paid to think, I don’t want to be distracted by sounds I can’t control.

The real scale of the ICO’s budget challenges arise from the minutes of the Executive Team meeting held on 15 November. The Commissioner had agreed a revised paper on budgets which superseded the original financial report. The new paper highlighted that the ICO had been asked for in-year grant in aid savings of originally £160k, and now for a further £170k. This 6% overall reduction in grant in aid had a large impact on the ability of the ICO to deliver its freedom of information work this year, especially as it came late in the financial year and was hence difficult to absorb. Further reductions would be even more difficult, if impossible, to absorb.

To make the full saving it was essential that all staffing changes and recruitment decisions were agreed by Finance before coming to Executive Team, and that once agreed all offers and start dates were also agreed by Finance.

In addition it was agreed that the agency staff budget would remain as is. Other options to reduce freedom of information spend this year could be looked at if needed, in particular the need for a new handrail in Wycliffe House would be raised with the Director of Organisational Development.

Given the difficulty in making the asked for saving the need for accuracy in the apportionment model was essential. Care was needed to ensure that data protection expenditure was not wrongly attributed to freedom of information.

Data protection expenditure was also looked at. The Operations Director reported that bringing the distribution of certain notification documentation in-house was actively being considered. There was also overtime for data protection casework planned, and the possibility of starting recruitment for the new audit team.

So, what should I take from this?

Well, that the Freedom of Information teams are likely to groan under the pressure of an increasing workload and less resource. We need to ensure that not too much “Data Protection money” ends up being spent on stuff that looks awfully like FOI. Perhaps people who are skilled in both areas will end up working for FOI for, say, 50% of the time in practice, despite, say, 80% of their salary being allocated from the Data Protection pot. Just how the ICO will achieve its current vision will be interesting. Do you remember what the ICO’s corporate plan states?

By 2012 we will be recognised by our stakeholders as the authoritative arbiter of information rights, delivering high-quality, relevant and timely outcomes, responsive and outward-looking in our approach, and with committed and high performing staff – a model of good regulation, and a great place to work and develop.

It’s a great corporate plan and full of exciting ideas. Let’s hope that the current – and continuing budget restrictions don’t impede its implementation to a significant extent.

Now please remember - when next visiting Wycliffe House - take your own milk and teabags, and don't mention the handrail.