11 challenges for the new information commissioner

A law team at Pinsent Masons has set out what they consider are the 11 key challenges for the new information commissioner Christopher Graham, who took over from Richard Thomas in June.

A law team at Pinsent Masons has set out what they consider are the 11 key challenges for the new information commissioner Christopher Graham, who took over from Richard Thomas in June.

1. Clear complaints backlog

His office should be reducing the backlog of complaints under both freedom of information and data protection legislation. He should increase the range of information, advice and guidance available to the public. The more information the public has, the more individuals can hold public sector organisations to account. The focus should be on individual rights, rather than organisational responsibility.

2. Get up to speed quickly

Graham should be talking directly to the public and organisations; he needs quickly to understand people's views and perceptions of what the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) does well and badly.

3. Enforcement

He should use his new powers to issue civil penalty notices which will provide an excellent opportunity to refresh the approach to enforcement, which has been criticised in the past as ineffective. The new commissioner has to show that failure to respect fundamental principles will simply not be accepted by him or his office.

Public expectations of organisations have increased and organisations have responded. But some have failed to put privacy at the core of what they do and how they operate. The new commissioner has to send a powerful message that such an approach will not be tolerated by him.

4. Financial services and the public sector

For the public sector the biggest issues are the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and the need to get the number of complaints down. The drive towards data sharing, shared services and joined up working will continue to present challenges from a data sharing and governance perspective. The ICO needs to offer clear and authoritative guidance and work with the public sector to ensure it is workable. It needs to be followed by clear guidance for the public on what they should expect from the public sector.

For the financial services sector, extreme budgetary pressures mean a focus on the bottom line. The ICO will have to show that innovations from his office translate into meaningful protection for individuals and do not damage the bottom line. He needs to show that new initiatives will help organisations rather than simply increase the administrative burden.

5. Personal data concerns

The personal data concerns of the average British resident will increase over the next five years. This will become apparent as the public becomes more aware of the importance of data held about them, in line with the growth in social networking sites.

6. Changing technologies

The ICO must keep up with changing technologies and international influences. One way to do this is to make connections in academia and with cutting-edge technology developers. This can be achieved through his ongoing work on the Article 29 Working Party and through a developing partnership with business.

7. Communicating FOI to citizens

People need to understand not just that the right to freedom of information exists, but the scope of it. Individuals know they can ask for information but have not been provided with the right tools and resources to assess the answers.

8. Data security

Personal data is not secure. It is nonsense to try to reassure people that it is. It is ultimately the job of the organisations holding data to keep it secure, not the ICO's.

9. Build on Richard Thomas's successes and failures

Richard Thomas' success was the way he worked with the press and his ability to popularise the debate. Some may argue that this was his failing too, along with his failure to connect with the public in quite the same way he did with the media.

He was also successful in stepping up enforcement action and increasing the level of public debate. However in our view he tended to focus on the politics, rather than holding organisations to account on the detail.

10. After five years of the new information commissioner, what achievements would determine his success?

Building a commitment to privacy rights into the fabric of decision-making, and more public engagement. Recent events have shown the public can be effective at moving Government.

11. Some more key challenges for Graham over the next five years?

He needs to make the data debate sensible, tone down the hysteria, and get rid of emotive terms like "surveillance society" and "Big Brother." The issues are too important to be trivialised by journalistic twitter. Only once this happens will the real dialogue be able to begin - the dialogue with government to address the issues raised by the expanding database culture.

He also needs to keep focused on the big picture rather than getting drawn in to fringe debates. He should drive the debate rather than be driven by it.

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