Thursday, 26 August 2010

And the Discretionary Housing Payments and Freedom of Information Saga Goes On...(Part 2)

A bit later than I indicated but here's the second part of my story on the battles with Freedom of Information and Discretionary Housing Payments.

I should say from the outset that this is as much a story of total ineptitude by the Information Commissioner's Office as anything else. 

You may remember I questioned Information Governance's claim that they hadn't had a decision made against them by the Information Commissioner in the last two years. I pointed out that this was partly because the Information Commissioner's office is, well, a bit shit. At the time, despite promising me a decision notice last October it still hadn't been delivered.

Finally, after quite a lot of badgering and impolite emails, it's here now.

Now the ICO upheld NCC's decision to refuse to provide all of the information I requested on cost grounds, despite the fact that NCC actually provided me with the info once the ICO had become involved. Weird huh? The decision deserves a closer look.

NCC's original decision stated the following -

“As Nottingham City Council only records successful applicants, an Officer would need to manually check the imaging system and paper records for each year to work out the total number of applicants for the scheme. There are 174 cases caught by the time period and each case would take approximately 45 minutes to check." (para 3)

Now, remember here that the bit of info they were refusing to provide was the TOTAL NUMBER of applications to the DHP scheme. Yet despite this they state that there are 174 cases to check. This number turned out to be bollocks but surely, if there are 174 cases to check, there are 174 applications? Apparently not quite. We'll get back to this.

Anyway, wheels turned, cogs made grinding noises and the ICO eventually became involved. Further information emerged -

"[NCC] also stated that there were not 174 cases as previously quoted, but in fact 3533 cases from August 2001 until 9 September 2009." (para 12)

Eh? But that's what I wanted to know! What's the problem here? NCC went on to explain the growth in the number of cases -

"The public authority said that it had provided the information which it held at the time of the request. The public authority had kept details of unsuccessful applications on an Excel spreadsheet for 07/08 and 08/09, there were 100 unsuccessful applications in 07/08 and there had been 74 unsuccessful applications during 08/09 at the time of the request." (para 13)

Hang on a minute. Didn't they originally say they only kept records of SUCCESSFUL cases? Yet now they are saying they have a spreadsheet recording only UNSUCCESSFUL cases? Does anybody out there run a training course detailing the distinguishing features of the arse and the elbow?

This passed the ICO caseworker by. Instead s/he asked NCC whether they could break the 3533 cases down into constituent years and NCC said that they could, using the magic of computers, and it would take under an hour. However, the information was qualified in the following manner -

"[NCC] stated that this amounted to an estimate because it was possible that the totals included documents that may have been misidentified as applications and it would not necessarily have identified where an applicant submitted more than one application. It maintained that the only way to locate and retrieve the information that had actually been requested, i.e. the total number of applications actually received (as opposed to an estimate) was to conduct a search of manual and electronic files to check how many applications each applicant had submitted and to eliminate any documents that the search query had picked up in error and that this would exceed the appropriate limit." (para 16)

Well I mean come on. Surely any management information system is only as good as the information input and that's implicit in any request. Does anybody think that human beings manually checking 3533 paper files will produce a 100% accurate answer?

And the idea that the possibility of multiple applications per 'case' sounds a bit desperate. Yes it's possible but how likely is it to happen within a given year? Surely, most people who are refused would challenge the decision via the review process. And why wouldn't this be picked up in a query for 'applications' anyway?

So essentially, what I'm saying here is that the information NCC provided was an acceptable answer to my request but it only happened once the ICO had become involved. Open and shut case of finding against NCC then? Read on.

After my chivvying them on a bit the ICO finally remembered in May this year that it had agreed to provide a decision notice. This was 14 months after I'd sent them my complaint. They were still convinced that in order to provide the answer that I needed it was necessary to check every single case file. However, they didn't go along with everything NCC claimed -

"[NCC] stated that the target time for the public authority staff to process each application is 40 minutes per case which in its opinion added further strength to the public authority’s application of section 12." (para 22)

So NCC claimed that it would take longer to check a file of an application than it would have done to process the application itself. Bear in mind, all they're looking for is the possibility of there being more than one application in there and DHP claims require fairly in-depth analysis of income and expenditure and qualitative judgment of a claimant's circumstances. It's a small mercy but the ICO wasn't having any of that -

"Having reviewed the representative sample of manual files the Commissioner found that it took an average of approximately 3 minutes per file to locate the information relevant to the request."
(para 23)

Quite a difference between 45 minutes and 3 isn't it?

The ICO then went on to conclude that, even with this lower estimate of the time taken to check the files, 3533 cases at 3 minutes each would still be greater than the limit above which charges could be made and, if you accept the premise that all the files needed checking individually you have to accept that's fair enough. Ergo, after all that, the ICO decided that NCC was correct to refuse my request on cost grounds. Look out for Information Governance claiming that as a full vindication at a committee meeting near you soon.

The ICO did however find that NCC failed to provide adequate advice and assistance although s/he wasn't very clear in explaining this. At a push I can see an argument for saying that NCC could have explained at the outset that I could have their 'estimate' figure instead of the absolutely accurate figure they were saying would be too much work but the ICO just says that NCC could have offered the information for a shorter time frame. Bizarre.

To be fair, none of this is the Information Governance staff's fault. They are not specialists in Discretionary Housing Payments and have to ask the Housing Benefits service for the information. When they are sold a bullshit like "oh we have to check every file, costs a fortune" they have no alternative but to accept that. The people to blame are the Housing Benefits staff who did the selling, at the least we are talking major cock-up in not having the imagination to first look into pulling info off the database and such a lack of imagination is quite believable, especially at the top. However, given the inconsistent rubbish that's been spouted at various stages by ways of explanation and given that the information finally gleaned painted a very poor picture of the Housing Benefits service's ability to administer the DHP scheme, the possibility of conspiracy cannot be entirely discounted.

In an interesting footnote to the decision, The ICO criticises NCC for taking 40 days to respond to my initial request for a review. This in a decision which took them 15 months to provide including 7 months of sitting on its arse doing nothing in response to my demand for a formal decision notice. I think NCC is entitled to accuse the ICO of rank hypocrisy on that one.

1 comment:

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