Just the candidates we need

A few months ago, the ICO received a Freedom of Information request on What Do They Know from a ‘Dwayne Dibbley’, asking interesting questions about the recruitment of Ellis Parry to the post of ICO Data Ethics Adviser. As soon as the post was announced, I was interested in how it came about because in my opinion, the ICO has no business creating a wholly optional job like this at a time when it has admitted that the regular work of the office has already been affected by luxury items like the Cambridge Analytica ‘investigation’. The hallmark of Elizabeth Denham’s tenure has been vanity projects and headline-chasing at the expense of the day job, and this seemed to be the pinnacle of her approach. I was, therefore, interested to see what Mr Dibbley’s request revealed.

I knew there was a problem. I didn’t recognise the name, but it didn’t ring true. I could tell it was made up, and so could the ICO (Dwayne Dibbley transpires to be a character in Red Dwarf). Shortly after, they asked for proof of Mr Dibbley’s ID and the request went dead. Technically, the request was not valid, but still, I found their approach annoying. In the same rough period, the ICO accepted FOIs from WDTK applicants as diverse as ‘dan74’, ‘John Smith, ’Tilly P’, ’navartne’ and ‘Gogos’. It might just be the ICO dodging a request because they could, but equally, it might be that they had something to hide.

I decided to make Dibbley’s request myself, explicitly referring to the previous refusal, but adding a question about why they blocked the request, and who decided to do it. Conveniently, they claimed to hold no information about that. However, I received a detailed bundle of correspondence, tracking the post from the development of the job description all the way until the successful recruitment of Mr Parry, and the writing of a blog which was published in the name of the Executive Director for Technology Policy and Innovation Simon McDougall, but which was actually written by the ‘Group Manager, Speechwriting and External Comms’.

There were a few interesting nuggets in the pile of internal correspondence – McDougall is one of those people who works in the ICO’s stupendously expensive London offices (in another FOI, I discovered that when he visits the ICO HQ, he bills the ICO for his meals at the Coach and Four Public House, very possibly the dullest pub in Wilmslow), while Parry was one of only two people to apply for the job. One aspect of the discussions that I enjoyed was the fact that the Data Ethics Adviser’s remit was to include whether the ICO needs a Data Ethics Adviser.

Mostly, it was the kind of dry procedural back-and-forth that you would expect to see a public body go through when creating a new post. Indeed, it was all so boring that the first time I read it, I missed the amazing revelation it contained. On June 14th 2019, at the very beginning of the drafting of the job description, there was an email discussion between McDougall, Ali Shah (the Head of Technology Policy) plus the Head of Innovation, a Group Manager from the Innovation team and McDougall’s Private Secretary. The ICO released all of the emails to me unredacted, naming all of these people, but I’ve decided to leave most of the names out.

As part of the discussion, Shah expressed concern about the scope of the JD.

“Will it have enough specificity to separate out Ellis? I don’t think it does, and reading the JD neutrally, I can think of a couple of people who would be equally or more qualified.”

Note that Shah refers to ‘Ellis’ – this is a person who all of these senior people are apparently on first name terms with. He explicitly did not want to be neutral about a job the ICO is about to recruit, and wanted to change the job description to exclude possibly better qualified applicants. Moreover, when the JD was circulated, the Group Manager added a comment which suggested a change to “and” from “and/or” on one of the criteria, observing:

There will be a lot of people who have the dp background but not the ethics. Asking for both will narrow the field to just the candidates we need; thinking of Ali’s comment here.”

The meaning is clear – the job description was written deliberately to exclude other candidates so that Ellis Parry would be more likely to get the job. At £45,000, this job is better paid than most in the ICO – the effort to favour this one candidate (if that’s the right word for a job that hasn’t even been advertised) excluded many possibly qualified people from inside the ICO as well as a variety of people outside who have spent considerable careers pondering how data ethics work.

It would be bad for any public sector organisation to stitch up a job for a specific candidate before it had even been advertised – posts should be given on merit, rather than to those favoured by the senior staff. For a regulator that purports to be almost a moral guardian in many contexts to do it would be even harder to swallow. Perhaps only Denham’s calamitous stewardship of the ICO could lead to this shoddy behaviour happening over a job with ‘Ethics’ in the title. I cannot claim that you couldn’t make it up, because these are the people who let a Labour Council Leader run the team that investigates complaints about political parties. Denham is the Commissioner who awarded thousands of pounds to her mates without putting it out to tender, and endorsed a book that she hadn’t read. By now, this is what I expect. None of the senior people in the email chain raised any objection to Shah’s explicit wish to stack the deck in favour of Mr Parry. As far as I can see, they just got on with it.

I have no idea if Mr Parry’s previous career working for BP or Astra Zeneca gives him insights into Data Ethics that puts him so far above the rest of the sector that his chauffeured journey to the job could be justified. I would like to be outraged, but actually, the fact that senior people at the ICO were sufficiently unethical to do this and stupid enough to write it down is exactly what I expect the people at this organisation’s overpaid and inflated top table to do. I didn’t think the ICO needed to recruit a Data Ethics Adviser, but this tawdry episode suggests that all of their work should be directed at its own activities. I fear that the ICO is in a bad place, given the grim mixture of incompetence and poor judgement that regularly tumbles out of it. I can only hope that recruitment for Denham’s successor – which cannot come too soon – is delivered more fairly than this was.