FOIs in the Republic: a richman’s hobby…

I’ve put in a few FOIs over the years. It’s difficult art. If it’s controversial in any way you nearly need to know the name and number of the document, before the civil servant will give it to you… You need to develop a fine understanding of the working of government to make them effectively… However in the south, it’s a costly business. And this morning, dropping the charges to citizens for making such requests was one of the things Brian Cowen refused to give on this morning after Leaders Questions:

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has today rejected claims that the cost of making Freedom of Information applications is excessive.

At present, a request for documents under FOI legislation costs €15 and an appeal against a refusal costs €75.

Any subsequent analysis by the Information Commissioner costs the applicant €150.

Speaking in the Dáil this morning, Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny accused one Government department of being deliberately obstructive with FOI requests in order to raise revenues.
However, Mr Cowen dismissed Mr Kenny’s remarks, saying he did not believe the costs were excessive.

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  • Pigeon Toes

    Thats a fairly effective way to stop the peasants asking awkward questions , or too many of them.

  • Mick, I sent you a brief note on this earlier.

    There’s no way we could have exposed the Rathlin ferry scandal if we’d had to pay for the privilege.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Nevin

    However, it would have been money well spent..DRD spent £55,000 to “investigate”…

  • I was about to submit an FOI and then read through the local (NI) council’s charges – which would make the query quite expensive for me to potentially expose their huge waste of ratepayers’ money. (Particularly if I needed to ask two other councils for similar information to make the comparison)

  • PT, the DRD £55,000 looks like money down the drain or out the bilge pumps as the report has almost as many holes as a colander 🙂

  • Pigeon Toes

    Alan, They can only charge you if the material is over a certain amount.

    Make the request, and they will let you know if it exceeds that amount.

  • Alan, have you considered approaching the Northern Ireland Audit Office or one of the Stormont committees with your concerns? MSM?

  • Pigeon Toes

    No just checked (whilst draining salad) my colander doesn’t have THAT many holes…

    “Alan, have you considered approaching the Northern Ireland Audit Office or one of the Stormont committees with your concerns? MSM?”

    Was that sarcasm Nevin?

  • PT, I understand – thanks to an FoI request – that salad is off the menu – the committees don’t have teeth.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Perhaps they prefer something heartier after a day whitewashing?

  • Thanks for the tip. While councils publish their charging rates on their websites, they don’t the cost limit obvious (at least, not to me).

    The appropriate cost limit for a request is £600 for central government and Parliament and £450 for other public authorities. This means when you receive a request you need to estimate how much it will cost to deal with it, and if it will be within this limit.

    Where the limit is not exceeded, the only charges that can be passed to the applicant are those associated with providing the information, for example photocopying and postage. These are collectively known as disbursements.

    source = http://www.ico.gov.uk/Global/faqs/freedom_of_information_for_organisations.aspx

  • Brian Walker

    At least in the UK, most FOI requests are free. The MPs’ expenses scandal was of course triggered by resistance to a simple FOI request, so the FOI climate is hotter than ever. One lesson is that the clock on FOI cannot not be turned back but exemptions will be more strictly spelled out. When he became PM, Gordon Brown cancelled a plan to charge for requests costing more than £600. There has been fears that several requests in the same application would have been charged separately. The outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas last week called for ” a culture of openness” and for much more prior release of information without having to be applied for in an FOI request. Brown has just accepted that the 30 year rule should be reduced to 20 but more controversially, that cabinet papers and royal family matters are now specifically exempted from FOI. The government used its veto for the first time this year when it overruled the commissioner and the appeals tribunal in ordering the release of cabinet minutes on invading Iraq. The next stage is to include in FOI, public contracts carried out by private companies, and mixed public-private operations like city academies, Railtrack and the BBC, which although a public body, partly operates in a commercial environment. It has much FOI exemption because of the independence given it by royal charter, though it is coming under increasing pressure. A recent study of civil servants’ opinion on FOI recorded “disappointment” that so much attention was paid to sensational-seeming FOI disclosures (hah!), assurances that FOI had not yet affected policy-making ( which is FOI exempt but hard to separate from delivery), and fears that policy making might one day be affected. Sir Humphrey still lives. BTW I’m much impressed with the way Emily O’Reilly carries out her role in the Republic. At the FOI Live conference last year, Sean Garvey her number 2, presented the Irish perspective. His slides give a clue to his theme.
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/foidp/downloads/FOILive2008/FOILive2008_IrishPerspective_SeanGarvey.pdf
    Tenth Anniversary of FOI in Ireland

    The Irish Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, has published a report on the first decade of Freedom of Information in Ireland. The report reveals that Irish FOI authorities have processed 130,000 enquiries in that time, of which 70 per cent were passed either partially or in full.

    Last year reviewing 10 years of FOI in Ireland, O’Reilly commented: ‘I am satisfied that FOI, and the related work done by my Office, has contributed significantly to our polity over 10 years. But I am realistic enough to know that there exists a spectrum of opinion on the usefulness and desirability of FOI.’ She also called for a thorough review of the legislation, investigating in particular the current practice of charging for requests, as well as the scope of FOI in general. (Not yet oh Lord, not yet…)

  • Pigeon Toes

    And some councils are not terribly au fait with the legislation, except when it comes to wriggling out of requests.

    So be very specific with the request, and word it in such a way that they cannot fudge around it.

  • Why work when you can bring in independent experts and charge it to the hapless taxpayer? Balancing the books may prove to be a trickier business.

  • Brian Walker

    PS I don’t quite understand the above discussion on council charges. From the Directgov advice notes:
    http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Yourrightsandresponsibilities/DG_4003239

    “Most requests are free. You might be asked to pay a small amount for making photocopies or postage.

    If the public authority thinks that it will cost them more than £450 (or £600 for a request to central government) to find the information and prepare it for release, then they can turn down your request. They might ask you to narrow down your request by being more specific in the information you’re looking for.”

  • Pigeon Toes

    And some civil service Departments Officials can become exceptionally “unprofessional”, when they don’t want to answer the questions……

  • “of which 70 per cent were passed either partially or in full.”

    Brian, you might be amazed at some of the reasons for rejection 😉

  • Pigeon Toes

    You might also be amazed at some of the information released inadvertently, and to the later consternation of some civil servants…

  • Brian – see http://www.lisburncity.gov.uk/your-city-council/freedom-of-information/ as an example of a council talking about charges being applicable. When you read their charging structure document it refers to £25/hour enquiry retrieval times as well as the more normal photocopying charges.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Alan he is right, most of it is free (That bit is there just to scare ye from making requests)

  • Bogman

    All I can say is that The FOI Acts are probably the most important legislation in recent years to promote the development of a fully fledged civil society. Given the Interaction with bloggers and the free flow of information Citizens can unearth evidence and work together to carry out investigations that previously simply would not have happened. The work done by ordinary citizens North and South to unearth the issues in ferry tendering in both jurisdictions could not take place without the FOI Acts. However this important right should not be abused in any way, i.e. should not be seen as a tactic to harass or obstruct the work of various Officials or Departments.
    I am personally happy with the charges as they are in the ROI as they filter those who have nothing else to do from those who have genuine and pressing need for specific information.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “However this important right should not be abused in any way, i.e. should not be seen as a tactic to harass or obstruct the work of various Officials or Departments.”

    Wouldn’t dream of getting in the way of their work ahem

    At least they all have jobs to go to.

    FOI requests have uncovered how some officials correspondence may have interfered on others rights to work.

  • Mick Fealty

    As an aside, interesting that Foras na Gaeilge has proven impregnable to all FOI requests both north and south. Is this the case with all cross border bodies. Have we inadvertantly created the bureaucratic equivalent of the Cayman Islands?

  • LGO

    I work with a local council in the north. Someone above said about being specific?

    I would deal with a lot of our FOI requests. I know this will sound silly, but it doesn’t matter how specific or how general your request is. We deal with them all, and all you will get is the information you ask for.

    I’ve seen “being specific” miss the target by a country mile. And I have seen huge requests yield up everything that the correspondent is looking for and they missed what they want in the deluge of paper. Know what it is you are looking for.

    Lot of talk about charging. We’ve never charged. Regardless of policy or whatever, we’ve never charged a penny for search times or photocopying.

    A wee point. We don’t actually work to “I would like to request under the Freedom of Information Act”. You write in, you email, you call, whatever – but in the spirit of the thing we decided that a request for information was just that – and that FOI merely framed the issue.

    I can’t speak for Civil Service mandarins. Thankfully. But in the main, local government officials will be reasonably helpful – especially the younger ones who haven’t been poisoned by 30 years of working in the same place, if you can at least manage to be polite, unofficious and unsnottery. Be shitty, you’ll wait the 21 days.

    One last thing – “fears that policy making might one day be affected”. I don’t see anything wrong with that fear. I know where YOU are coming from. It doesn’t really affect us at local government.

    But I think that the thought-to-paper process of creating a policy, which may be ditched or spark off another idea, or lead to something worthwhile, may only be stymied if people think every random jotting at such an early stage becomes discoverable later. Gotta give the thinkers a *wee* bit of latitude.

  • LGO – that’s interesting and very reassuring.

    From what you see of FOI requests and responses going past, do you think many of the issues covered merit being answered? No right or wrong answer to that question! But seeing the mix of nonsense, tiny issue, tough questions, you must get a feel for whether FOI actually delivers “mere” transparency or is bringing a useful and vital transparency to councils?

  • “all you will get is the information you ask for.”

    Sometimes you get personal information that should have been redacted, LGO. It seems that the details of the Data Protection Act haven’t filtered through to all parts of the public service.

    At Government level the 20 working day option is sometimes exercised as a prevarication measure.

  • LGO

    To be truthful, Alan, I only work in a council, and as such, many of the questions we get are very local in nature. Nothing earth-shattering is ever really revealed, because we don’t have much important going on in the bigger scheme of things. That’s just the truth of it. And it won’t be any different after RPA.

    What I do see a lot of, (and I will get shot for writing it), is a lot of laziness. Lazy local journalists looking for a story. Across the councils we get a lot of “how much did you spend on consultants”. And actually, despite what a lot of people think, the answer is generally “not much”. Maybe it’s just my Council.

    We get that a lot from consultants who are looking to see what areas of work they can get in to.

    Many from Joe Public are quite often contrivances to get at Councillors, or an officer who has not said yes to some silly request. “All correspondence relating to” the sale of a bit of land, or how funding was given out or whatever.

    But so much now is tied up in existing procedure, and followed through by officers in that vein, that really in all honesty, they are *mostly* barking up the wrong tree.

    Actually, I should temper my language. “Many” is not a good word to use. FOIs are actually pretty thin on the ground. Government departments get many more of them, and have entire teams to deal with and obfuscate them. I was surprised to see the “130,000” in the article above.

    You only have my word for this, but a few of us from local government got together with some from the Departments, and all they could do was boast about how they blocked this, refused that, etc.
    I know there should be SOME limitations, but it’s actually easier to answer them as best you can.

    Is FOI worth it? Undoubtedly. Ask Nevin.

    Do we hate it when they come in? Of COURSE we do – cos who REALLY wants to be photocopying paper all day?

    Do we cover stuff up? At my work level, and in all honesty? No.

    Could it be used better? Absolutely, in terms of the scale of stuff we get asked; but then, at our level, the wee things are important to people.

    Do I know of shredded documents and deleted emails, done in fear of discovery? No. But then I only get what I ask my colleagues for. What they do after the request is made by me, I have no idea. Take from that whatever you want!

    For me, the quandary is when people ask FOIs about other people’s tenders. There’s rules etc governing that, and I think IN SOME CASES it is only fair that certain competitive advantages should remain “commercial in confidence”. There are many who disagree. There, they and I will just part company. When the rules change, I will do as I am bid, but already, anyone I work with from the private sector who does public contracts, I’m telling them that they should write their tenders knowing that their neighbour could ask for a copy.

    Sorry for rambling…I didn’t realise I had quite so much to say.

  • LGO – thanks – that’s very enlightening, and encouraging in a funny kind of way!

  • “Do I know of shredded documents and deleted emails, done in fear of discovery?”

    LGO, one point that has cropped up during our researches is the unprofessional approach to minute taking. It’s hard to know whether this is deliberate or lazy or a combination of the two.

    With regard to tendering, we were amazed to find that some of those who sat on what we thought were independent tender evaluation panels also turned out to be intimately involved in the tender process. You can just imagine the potential for possible conflicts of interest at best and corruption at worst.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Heres a lovely one concerned with the Rathlin Ferry saga.

    Thw whistleblower’s emails in the case could not be released under FOI under the Data Protection Act.

    Yet the £55k report insists that when the civil servant released their identity and correspondence to the employer, this did not breach the Data Protection Act.

    Methinks DRD spaketh with forked tongue…

  • LGO

    Nevin, can’t disagree with what you say about tendering. But I am going to guess perhaps that your “researches” were at central government level?

    Usually (*usually*, I say) local government stuff is too “close to the ground” for that sort of thing. I don’t say it doesn’t happen, but the closed doors of Stormont Offices are much less accessible than knowing what goes on behind the doors of your local council office.

    On your point of minute-taking, and this is not to contradict your own point; I know you are going to laugh at this, but it is a valid concern: getting accurate minutes taken is getting difficult.

    I believe shorthand just isn’t taught any more. Or asked for in job descriptions. Again I can only speak at Council level. But for sure, most of our admin people under 35 just wouldn’t have it. Consequently, there is a real worry that in 15 years time, professional minute takers will be a thing of the past. I picked three of our local colleges and did a search for Pittmans and shorthand. Nothing. Go figure. Time to get the tape recorders in. And that’s another can of worms.

    Anyway, that’s a bit off-topic.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/8103132.stm

    But the judge ruled any right of privacy on the part of the blogger would be likely to be outweighed by a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer had been making such contributions.
    In his blog “Night Jack – An English Detective” the unnamed officer chronicled his working life in an unnamed UK town: descriptions of local criminals and his struggle with police bureaucracy.
    Mr Justice Eady said the blog contained opinions on a number of social and political issues relating to the police and the administration of justice.
    He added Night Jack had expressed strong opinions on matters of political controversy and had also criticised a number of ministers.
    The judge said the blogger risked disciplinary action if his employers found out one of its officers was communicating to the public in such a way.
    This was one of the main reasons why Night Jack was keen to maintain his anonymity, he added.”

    Not heard of Public Interest Disclosure Act then ?

    Perhaps “Night Jack” should have gone to the Audit Office, Oh thats right when they hand over their information, erm “indepedent” third parties can construct reports in such a way that the person is easily identifiable- and in breach of the DPA

  • Pigeon Toes

    On your point of minute-taking, and this is not to contradict your own point; I know you are going to laugh at this, but it is a valid concern: getting accurate minutes taken is getting difficult.

    In Nevin’s local council in the Kingdom, they don’t appear to take minutes at all.

    Yet their clerical posts ask for ability to minute take, and this must be clearly demonstrated in application form and at interview…

    and er some “clarification” meetings took place in the council offices re harbour works to “facilitate” the the proposed new operator. Curiously, neither the council whose CEO also was member of tender evaluation Panel, DRD, or CPD took minutes as per procurement (and I dare say) Council good Practice/Protocol?

  • LGO

    PT, I can’t comment on what happens in Moyle, and all I will say is I have used “caveat” words like “usually”, “mostly” and so on.

    Minute taking now seems to rely on the ability to catch “key concepts”, points and actions, rather than complete word accuracy a la Pittmans. I’m not saying it’s right. It’s only an observation from “my side” of the wall.

    As for introducing NightJack, are you implying I have something to be scared of…? 😉

  • Pigeon Toes

    LGO, not at all. I was actually back referencing to Nevins Rathlin Ferry saga. The report identified the whistleblower which is contrary to DPA.

    I was further curious at the insistence of this skill, yet the council appears not to utilize same skill for what I would regard as pretty important meetings?

    How do they recall what was ever agreed with third parties?

    Then again, that particular council has a pretty poor publication policy re Council minutes and agendas, unlike most other councils. Despite this they assert that they have agreed to the “enhanced publication scheme”.

    I think we ALL have something to fear from the “Night Jack” story…..

  • Pigeon Toes

    “A wee point. We don’t actually work to “I would like to request under the Freedom of Information Act”. You write in, you email, you call, whatever – but in the spirit of the thing we decided that a request for information was just that – and that FOI merely framed the issue.”

    I understand that any request for information, has to be treated as an FOI, whether or not phrase is used in the request.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “enhanced publication scheme” I meant “model publication scheme”, talking shite again…

    http://www.moyle.mmcsolutions.biz/content/?id=124&l1id=47

  • LGO, the tendering process involved officials from central and local government – in more than one jurisdiction!!

    Our researches have proved to be more revealing and more discommoding than the £55,000 tax-payer funded whitewash (OOPs) Government investigations.

  • Pigeon Toes

    And it aint over yet Nevin…

  • “Heres a lovely one concerned with the Rathlin Ferry saga.”

    It seems strange that the BT’s ‘investigative journalists’ (still) haven’t spotted the connection between the Rathlin and Cape Clear ferry sagas viz Ciaran and Mary O’Driscoll are at the heart of both:

    West Cork ferry workers stage second strike action
    Thursday, 18 June 2009

    Workers on a ferry serving Cape Clear Island in west Cork are to stage a second day of strike action today.

    Staff on the Naomh Ciaran 2 are taking the action in protest at pay cuts for deckhands and the ship’s master.

    According to SIPTU, the vessel’s owner also wants them to work for free for four weeks this summer.

    The workers staged a one-day strike on June 4th and are taking further industrial action from 9am until 7pm today.

    PS The Irish Times article suffers from the lazy ‘he said she said’ approach to journalism.