Mates’ Rates

A while ago, I noticed an FOI request sent to the Information Commissioner’s Office on the website What Do They Know? I always keep an eye on requests made to Wilmslow, but this one was especially intriguing. It asked about payments made by ICO to external suppliers and consultants where the work had not been put out to tender. Even the progress of the request became notable because the Information Commissioner was seemingly incapable of answering it. The original request was made on February 26th 2019, and the ICO didn’t answer it until July 9th, more than three months after the legal time limit. Twice, the ICO set itself a deadline by which it would definitely answer the request, and twice it failed to do so. Remember friends, the Information Commissioner is the regulator for FOI. They’re supposed to ensure that other public sector bodies answer their FOI requests, but they’re terrible at answering their own. It’s worth noting Liz Denham was almost certainly aware of the request, as there is specific mention of her private office being involved during the glacial march towards a reply.

SIDENOTE: I made an FOI about enforcement and monetary penalties to the ICO that was due on July 16th. The Senior Information Access Officer handling my request told me that he hoped to provide me with a reply by Friday, and an answer came there none. I wonder if they’ll sit on it like they did here.

Anyway, due to the busiest July I have ever had (take that, haters), I missed the fact that the payments request had finally been answered, apparently in full, with no use of exemptions. At first glance, it’s nothing to get excited about. The total amount is less than £240,000, and though the highest payment made to anyone is £58000, the explanation of why this work was not put out to tender doesn’t sound outrageous:

A project brief was developed and three suppliers were approached for quotes. The requirements were in two parts, the first part was research and the second part was delivery. The second part of the brief was tendered to the supplier who completed the first after the proposed next steps were evaluated by the Board and it was agreed to implement their proposals – meaning they were uniquely placed to deliver the second part.

A couple of items did leap out at me. David Smith is not a unique or distinctive name, but it’s hard to believe that the particular David Smith (DP) Ltd paid £5152 for international engagement isn’t the same David Smith who was until recently Deputy Information Commissioner. Apparently, Smith is “uniquely placed” to deliver international engagement on behalf of the ICO. One would think that the Commissioner’s pan-continental roadshow would provide all the engagement the office could require, but I suppose throwing a few grand in an old friend’s direction isn’t the worst thing the ICO has ever done.

Equally, I doubt the Simon Entwistle who received £5791 is a different Simon Entwistle to the Simon Entwistle who was until recently Deputy Information Commissioner. Apparently, he is uniquely placed to carry out ‘Executive Coaching’. Granted, Entwistle is an old ICO hand, originally appointed by Richard Thomas, but it’s rather odd that having retired, the organisation has to pay him to coach the ICO’s senior people. Elizabeth Denham was paid around £180,000 in 2018 – 2019, and every member of the executive team is within spitting distance of 100K. These are well-paid, experienced people – if they’re in these jobs, that should be because they already have the skills to do these jobs. If they don’t, why were they appointed?

The sum paid to Entwistle for coaching isn’t massive, but it’s not the only one. Two different amounts, totalling £17,968, were paid to a ‘Philip Halkett’ for executive coaching, a role which he was once again “uniquely placed” to carry out. I cannot say for certain who Halkett is, and I am happy to be corrected if I have got it wrong. However, I believe he is a former Deputy Minister in Canada’s Ministry of Forests, and is based in British Columbia, where he describes himself on LinkedIn as ‘semi retired’. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of people offering coaching in the UK, but since Denham became Commissioner, the ICO has paid just shy of £18000 to a man who has no website or company that I can find, whose sole contribution to the internet is a single retweet about Denham, and whose main qualification for the job appears to be that he comes from the same remote corner of Canada as she does.

Halkett isn’t the only Canadian to feel the benefit of the ICO’s munificence. The former Information Commissioner of Canada, Suzanne Legault, is “uniquely placed” to deliver the secretariat for the International Commissioner’s Conference that Denham has been nominated to organise. It’s probably a complete coincidence that Legault is Canadian, and it’s not like organising an international conference isn’t a thing that loads of organisations do all of the time all over the world.

Most intriguing is the work carried out by a British customer service guru, Mark Colgate. Colgate has been paid £20000 to deliver “advice on development of service excellence programme and delivery of training to 500 staff”. If you visit Colgate’s website, you’ll find an uncharismatic man plugging some basic customer service ideas using gratingly clunky acronyms. Colgate sums up his philosophy as ‘Tofu’, which means that he is selling a fundamentally unappetising and artificial concept. I’m joking, ‘Tofu’ means ‘Take Ownership and Follow Up’. Another element of the Colgate Method is FAME, a concept that is so vapid and forced I can’t bear to reproduce it here.

Most regulators do not have customers. In particular, the ICO is not an ombudsman. It is not their job to give complainants redress or resolution. The ICO’s role is to ensure that controllers comply with the law – Article 57 of the GDPR states that the first task of the supervisory authority is to ‘monitor and enforce‘ the regulation. Handling complaints from members of the public is in there, but the public are not the ICO’s customers, any more than controllers are. The aim should not be to give either side what they want, but to ensure that controllers do those things that they are obliged to do, and that individuals’ rights are respected. A ‘customer service’ mentality is at best a distraction, and at worst, risks creating expectations that cannot be met. Many controllers have experience of ICO case officers who keep pushing a dead-end complaint because they clearly don’t want to give an angry or unreasonable complainant an answer they don’t like. If you swap it and make the controllers the customer, it’s at least as bad. The ICO has a long, shabby history of bending over backwards to appease ‘stakeholders’; the aforementioned David Smith was a big fan of describing the ICO as ‘enablers’ of business and innovation, rather than an organisation with a clear mission to enforce some specific laws.

But let’s assume that I’m wrong. Let’s assume that the ICO does need to spend thousands of pounds training its staff on customer service. What exactly is it about Mr Colgate’s brand of bargain basement Dale Carnegie that meant he had to be awarded this work without a tender process? Why, given the plethora of genuine customer service experts in the UK, was Mr Colgate “uniquely placed in respect of experience and expertise” to deliver this work, especially when it is so similar to so many other people? Is there any clue in his CV? Mr Colgate’s current berth as “Professor of Service Excellence” at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, which you can find in the fine city of Victoria. In Canada. Specifically, in British Columbia. About a ten minute drive from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, the last incumbent of which was a certain Elizabeth Denham. Fans of funny coincidences may also care to note that the current incumbent of that office is Mr Michael McAvoy, last seen running the ICO’s investigation into data analytics, a role that I do not believe was advertised externally.

At this point, you might be saying ‘so what’? Denham has thrown some work to her mates both home and abroad: is this so terrible? In my opinion, it really is. A good chunk of my work comprises a single day’s training, and in many cases, the client gets multiple quotes before giving me the work. I simply don’t believe the ICO’s claims that these people are the only possible candidates, especially as there was no competition or objective test. Public money should not be spent on a whim, especially not with the particular flavour of favouritism and self-indulgence that appears to be on show here. Bringing in your Canadian friends to provide luxury services that thousands of people in the UK are well-placed to provide shows lamentably poor judgement.

This is not the first time I have blogged about Denham’s terrible decisions. She did an advert for a commercial company. She enthusiastically endorsed a book she hadn’t read, making claims about the author which were not true. She made misleading claims in the media to get headlines and bragged on TV that she had used powers that actually don’t exist. She announced the Facebook fine prematurely and now faces accusations of bias and procedural unfairness. We haven’t had a decent Commissioner since Elizabeth France, but despite Richard Thomas’ over-caution and Chris Graham’s superficiality, both of them seemed able to do the job without the growing list of howlers for which Denham is responsible. Paradoxically, she is the most respected and popular of all the Commissioner’s incarnations and my complete lack of faith in her judgement makes me the bad guy, as usual. Nevertheless, questions need to be asked about what exactly is going on in Wilmslow, how decisions are being made, and how money is spent. There are a number of well paid non-executive directors on the ICO board; I would be keen to know what they think of all this.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, and all that.

Comments

  1. Andy Sykes says:

    Brilliant article be interesting to see who does their legal work . What Soliciors the use?

    • I know they have a lot of (good) in-house lawyers, but they use definitely use 11KBW for barristers. Not sure if they use other firms.

      • They seem to only use their (admittedly excellent) in-house lawyers – probably because it’s so niche there’s no external firms that could have the same depth of experience.
        I can’t recall them using Chambers other than 11KBW. Not sure that’s an issue – all counsel are self-employed, and 11KBW is THE best info law set out there.
        Tim, have you ever looked at the ICO’s own compliance with the CoP on publication of stats re FOI? They are chasing LAs in London over compliance and been some murmurs about CoP publications, but a quick look at ICO website seemed they don’t actually meet the obligations themselves….?

  2. I wonder what the DCMS Accounting Officer or the Public Accounts Committee would say about this apparently improper management of public funds?

%d bloggers like this: