Tuesday 8 February 2011

Another "first" with the ICO

I had another memorable experience with someone from the Information Commissioner’s Office today. Is this an especially memorable experience that is likely to be splashed across the centre pages of a Sunday newspaper? I think not. It was my first such experience, but it was all carried out in the best possible taste.

What am I on about?

I’m referring to the Commissioner’s latest plan to manage the volume of assessments his Office is required to deal with. Try as hard as we might, there will always be the odd occasion in which mistakes are made- and the victims of those mistakes may, also on occasion, relay their experience to the ICO. And these complainants, quite justifiably, will expect the ICO to examine the mistakes which have been made and to ensure that those responsible - and perhaps the wider data protection community - learn the relevant lessons.

In the past, it’s been the ICO’s practice to write to the data controllers, seeking written responses to points when it appeared that there may have been a breach of the Data Protection Act. Now, a new trend is emerging. As one of the leading exponents of modern technology, the ICO has taken to phoning data controllers, rather than writing to them (or perhaps as a precursor to writing to them), seeking their views and commitments on issues that are well known to one and all.

I had my first experience of such a telephone call today. And I have to report that it was a very welcome sensation. Quite a thrill, actually. It enabled me to understand the root cause of the complainant’s problem, and it gave me the opportunity to emphasis my commitment to continually reviewing and enhancing the customer service standards that my employer tries so hard to provide. And it also gave me an opportunity to explain to the ICO’s assessor just how much effort it takes to ensure that such regrettable errors are kept to the absolute minimum.

I quite enjoyed the call. It allowed me, rather than asserting my written commitment to high data protection standards, to demonstrate my passion in words. It enabled me to engage in a constructive, friendly and meaningful discussion with someone who, I hope, also formed the opinion that I truly care about trying to get things right.

And, just as importantly, it also enabled us both to deal with the assessment, and the underlying cause of the problem, then and there. In one phone call, rather than a series of letters which might have taken weeks to properly deal with.

I do hope to receive more such calls. They’re just as effective as written correspondence with the ICO. They let me show that I care, and they give me an opportunity to advise the assessor of other facts that they might also need to bear in mind when dealing with similar issues. They also give the assessor the opportunity to clear up any supplementary points that might arise during the conversation, in order that they they can make a better informed decision about the action they should subsequently take.

So, given the chance, I hope you might also enjoy a one-to-one with one of the Commisisoner’s complaints handling staff. We don't always have to do it in writing. Remember - it's good to talk!