Data watchdog ‘extremely concerned’ on failure to locate suitable office

Regulator frustrated at OPW’s inability to identify suitable offices as workforce trebles

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The regulator overseeing the handling of personal data is “extremely concerned” about the ability of the Office of Public Works to find a permanent office for its growing workforce in Dublin.

The Data Protection Commission raised concerns with the Department of Justice in November about the OPW’s continual rejection of potentially suitable offices for a staff that has trebled in five years.

New EU-wide rules on the handling of personal data by companies introduced under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018 has led to a massive increase in the commission’s workload.

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon and her senior staff told the department at a meeting on November 16th that the watchdog had received almost 2,000 complaints in the five months since the introduction of the new rules, compared with about 2,600 received during the whole of 2017.

The commission’s budget has increased from €1.9 million in 2014 to €15.2 million this year, while staff numbers have gone from about 40 to a target of 160 staff by the end of this year. It has, however, struggled to find a single suitable office for its workforce in the rapid scaling-up of its activities.

The watchdog told the department that its office on Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin city centre had been “over-capacity” since June 2017 and that it had to secure temporary accommodation in serviced offices.

The commission told department officials that “in light of the serious pressure” on it for office accommodation, it had to secure a floor in the Trinity Point building opposite Trinity College and this was the only temporary offices available other than “significantly higher-cost” serviced offices.

The Dublin offices are in addition to a building occupied by the watchdog in Portarlington, Co Laois.

Frustration

The department was told by the commission that it expected to exceed capacity in the Fitzwilliam Square and Trinity Point offices “at some stage during 2019” due to ongoing recruitment and the expected increase in the number of staff being hired to meet the watchdog’s increasing workload.

The commission expressed frustration at the pace of the OPW’s search for a suitable single office for its Dublin staff, telling the department that some of the properties identified by the OPW represented “good permanent office accommodation solutions in terms of location, facilities, appearance and size”.

“In its engagement with OPW, the [commission] is concerned that the OPW continues to identify reasons why each building under consideration is not suitable to be progressed by OPW,” the commission said in the briefing note for the department released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Furthermore, it should be noted that it is unlikely that any of these accommodation options would be available before the end of 2019. Consequently the [commission] continues to be extremely concerned about the ability of OPW to secure a permanent office in the near future.”

International spotlight

A spokesman for the commission said it continued to engage “intensively” with the OPW on identifying a permanent office in Dublin but it expected that this “may not be available before 2020.”

The watchdog’s pay bill, €8.9 million for 2019, accounts for the bulk of its budget of €15.2 million for this year. It had sought a budget of almost €17 million and hoped to increase staff numbers to 180 by the end of 2019 but trimmed this to 160 with the lower budget granted.

The commission has warned the department in the past that the regulator’s reputation and that of Ireland is in the international spotlight because the one-stop-shop mechanism under EU privacy rules makes the DPC the de facto EU regulator of major internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

A spokesman for the OPW said it had been working for some time with the commission in the search for a new headquarters for its expanding staff numbers and this had “proved challenging in the current Dublin office market.”

“Several options are currently under consideration in conjunction with the DPC to meet the commission’s specific requirements and it is hoped to bring this process to a conclusion in the coming months,” he said.