End this FOI game and give us everything (you reasonably can)!

Hugh Linehan in the Irish Times captures something essential about what Freedom of Information means for public institutions, and that in fact the kind of backwards and forwarding over the precise language of any request is missing the point.

He mentions a fascinating paper written by Nat O’Connor for Tasc, in which he argues that democracy is not just about voting, which is actually the last link in the chain, it is also about tracking, criticising government in between elections too.

To do that well, citizens need access to information on the inside of the machine. Linehan quotes thestory.ie‘s line:

“the backend is the frontend”. Which may sound like jargon, but is actually a fundamental truth. Like all large organisations, the Irish State has been digitising for a long time now, largely for reasons of internal operational efficiency. But this process means that many of its own traditional arguments for restricting public access to information have been (inadvertently) undermined. They’re so 1997.

So why not just make that information publicly available online, rather than subjecting applicants and civil servants to the rigmarole and expense of Freedom of Information applications? And why not do so as quickly as possible?

Why indeed? The NI Water story has been in part about waiting for access to documents we are pretty sure exist, but which they are reluctant to share with us (and other citizens following their own line of enquiry) because they may not show the Department in the best light.

If the back end of the government machine were indeed treated as though it were the front end then whilst it would not guarantee internal hygiene, it would disincentivise more casual departures from good practice. It will be one of the themes I hope to touch on at Avondale on Sunday… (the keynote session is open to all)

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  • joeCanuck

    they may not show the Department in the best light.

    And that’s why Governments, here in Canada too, try to avoid, as far as possible, responding to SOME FOI requests. People have to work hard sometimes to drag the info out of them. I think Nevin has experience of that.

  • Mick Fealty

    Yes. But the truth is that senior civil servant staff seem to believe that what they do won’t come out and as such can’t be construed in anything other than the best light.

    If exposure were set as the default from the start then protocols might followed rather more rigourously.

  • Actually, I think it’s more the case that the senior staff don’t consider how things will appear in public because their internal value system just isn’t the same as the one the public have. It’s largely the same sort of attitude in the upper echelons of the banks as well.
    I think it’s a cultural thing and it needs a shock to the system like opening up the backend to public scrutiny via the web (with remote access etc, pretty much all departments now operate virtual offices where everything can be accessed from anywhere). Unlike banks, where secrecy is a commercial prerogative, the public service is supposed to be a ‘public’ service.

  • CW

    “So why not just make that information publicly available online, rather than subjecting applicants and civil servants to the rigmarole and expense of Freedom of Information applications? And why not do so as quickly as possible?”

    For the simple reason that putting every minute detail of information the public are entitled to see online would itself take up enrmous amounts of time and money. And it would have to be gone through with a fine tooth comb to check for any sensitive information or personal data which ma require redacting.
    As I work in the FOI field myself I know what it’s like!

  • Alias

    “Why indeed?”

    Because the information is only tokenly available, with the token being a concession to the high-falutin’ concept of open and transparent officialdom. No one really wants you to have access to the information despite the concept so they make it as difficult as possible while still spouting off about the grand concept…

    Whatever about access to such information in Ireland, little of any importance will ever be made public in secret state like NI where all is clandestine and top-down…

  • Funny OFMDFM wrote to me yesterday and said they’ll not be accepting any further FOI requests from me with regards to a SINGLE TENDER ACTION awarded to a former Labour party spin doctor – who conducted a POLL on behalf of OFMDFM at a cost of £37,000 in March of this year

    Begs the question – what have they to hide !!

  • The problem is not the reluctance of politicians or civil servants to comply with FOI requests. The problem is us, we allowed ourselves to be convinced that FOI meant what we thought it meant. All of us should: read the small print.

  • joeCanuck

    Pippikin, Well, it is somewhat better than it was before the Acts of Parliaments. Still a ways to go though.

  • joe

    I remember when the FOI was introduced in the UK. It seemed such a huge achievement for a country with no written constitution. Instead it was yet another empty promise..It doesnt even matter here or there, no difference at all.

  • CW

    There are 23 exemptions written into the FOI Act, including from commerical sensitivity, threat to national security, personal data, conduct of national affairs among others. So if a government department wants to withhold certain information they can always in theory hide behind one of these exemptions. They do occasionally get taken to the Information Commissioner or dragged before a tribunal and are eventually forced to release the information, although this is quite rare.
    It hasn’t been all bad though. Some good has come out of the FOI Act, the revelation about MPs’ expenses for example which led to a few of the shameless freeloaders resigning from their posts.

  • joeCanuck

    Yes, and for investigative journalists, a refusal to disclose really gets their antennae waggling.

  • Local Government Officer

    I’ve fielded a lot of FOIs, but disappointingly, I find that I have had to submit just as many to get information from central government. They really show us mere council yokels how to be devious, sneaky, mis-informing and completely evasive.

    I’ve certainly never been asked any questions which have me cringing at the outcome. I note the “cost of consultants used by Councils” list doing the rounds this week. It is what it is. If we need an independent evaluation done, or something is outside of inhouse knowledge, we tender it out, we pay what it costs, and that’s pretty much it. But that’s the level of question we get asked. That and absenteeism. It’s so boring now as to be in the domain of numpties like Nolan.

    If I had to impart a bit of advice, it would be to think about your question very, very carefully. Write it down, think very carefully about what it is you want, then write down all permutations of your question and then write it down again until you have all options covered.

    While I don’t have to deal with the Tele or the Newsletter very often, I have to say that I am very disappointed at the so-called inquiring minds of the local press. There are much bigger and deeper questions to be asked than “how much did that cost?” But then, as with so much journalism these days, it’s the cheap headline that seems to satisfy the most. Even then, they aren’t getting the “how much did it cost” question right.

    Belfastjj. As far as I am concerned, Stormont civil servants are the Dark Side and to be held in contempt at all times. But I think the reason they aren’t accepting any more FOIs from you is that you didn’t get it right the first six times and you’re now classed as “vexatious”. Stick at it. Don’t give up.

  • CW

    Yeah, but look at the hoops that poor girl had to go through to wring the truth out of the UK govt!

  • Drumlin Rock

    Just wonder, if the FOI act was extended to the media and they had to apply the same level of openness as the government…

  • Thats the exact word they used “vexatious” and i was causing some of the Senior civil servants distress !!

  • joeCanuck

    DR,

    I never realized that you are a civil servant 🙂

  • Mick

    Now that’s an instructive case study. If you read Heather Brooke’s The Silent State, what you learn is that although she spent three years pushing her FOI request, her campaign was only indirectly successful.

    It was one of the soldiers who was drafted in to deal with processing needed to fulfil her request who took the unredacted copies which were then sold to the Daily Telegraph.

  • joeCanuck

    There is a way around that. Get a friend, different address, to submit a similar request. Gets rid of the vexatiousness accusation.

  • Mick

    Indeed. There are those on the right who think freedom of data should only be imposed on the public sector. But outside commercially sensitive material I am not sure why that should be.

  • Local Government Officer

    ….what Joe said.

    AND reframe your question – seriously look at it, think about the information you need, and then re-write it. And be polite.

    Civil servants. They’re just ***ts. 🙂

  • Mick Fealty

    Politeness is crucial. And sticability (which you clearly have). The more civil the engagement the more likely you are to get a result. Think of it as a puzzle that just needs the right combination of ingredients…

    Given the wide territory we’re tracking here, it might be useful to start a thread in which people suggest subjects that could be FOIed and then people choose which ones to go for.

    I’m thinking there needs to be some focus on the Board’s reaction to PC10; which we’ve barely looked at, but which I suspect will give us some context to the so far unexplained resignation of Mr McKenzie.

  • Mick Fealty

    This is interesting, but I go back to my point earlier about default assumptions. This governs the way the data is stored.

    There’s an anology here about the way people hit websites. For the most part on Slugger at least, it is repeat business. Even the most popular search strings on Google are the site’s name.

    But often people come from Twitter or Facebook into the back end to a story that’s been linked in some way. Our glossary definitions used to be big on Google, although since the redesign those old links to say the post on Whataboutery have lost their Google juice, and it’s not even on the front page any more.

    Liam Adams Timeline is a better example. People search for it, Slugger comes up in 3rd position. They effectively go in the back. Most open sites work on the same principle.

    If you build your data banks with ‘open’ as the default and then classify those items that are considered too sensitive to release, you don’t get this problem of wading through acres and acres of polite and meaningless stuff.

  • joeCanuck

    Maybe a pedantic point , Mick, but you said freedom of data. Raw data can be useful but more important is how the possessors of the data interpreted and acted upon it.

  • CW

    There is talk about extending FOI Act to cover private sector organisations which provide services on behalf of the public sector – from the Lib Dem election manifesto I believe.

  • drumlins rock

    think I remember that pol….

    keep digging JJ 🙂

  • DoppiaVu

    This is all lovely.

    Now back in the real world, the team that I run is having its budgets savagely slashed. The only way for us to stay afloat is to spend as much time as we can on income-generating work, and as little time as possible on “Local Authority Functions”. So, when I receive yet another FOI request from i) A student doing a dissertation who has realised that rather than doing their own research they can do an FOI request and make my dept do his dissertation for him; or ii) someone who is pursuing their own hobby-horse issue; it does get a bit frustrating. Not because we have a problem with providing the information (although the student dissertation issue is a particular bugbear), but because we just don’t have the resources to do so.

    So a couple of random comments:

    – putting everything online; sounds fine, but given that I struggle to figure out my way around my own authority’s intranet, I suspect that the majority of people would also struggle to find anything of use. The FOI requests will therefore continue, as few people would be able to locate the information they needed. Oh yes and it’s also a lot easier to get your friendly LA officer to do it for you (bloody students). There is also the issue of how to pay for putting it all online, and maintaining it. I can’t really see govt wanting to allocate scarce resources to that for a very long time.

    – there seems in this thread to be some sort of conspiracy theory mentality going on. Take a step back and look at the more mundane possibilities…such as, the people you are requesting information from actually have a lot of other things to do, and your FOI may be an irritating distraction.

    – regarding Belfastjj’s repeated requests for information. Clearly I don’t know any of the specifics of this and so I cannot comment on whether there is something suspicious going on. However, once again, consider the more mundane possibility…that perhaps the people concerned honestly believe they have given all the information you have asked for and now think that you’re a bit of a crank?

  • drumlins rock

    not that lucky mate, 🙁

    just the quality of journalism often has alot to be desired, and has agendas of its own, I’m learnig to follow the money!

  • Her campaign was successful in that the information was released via the Telegraph … however, it was also unsuccessful in that the eventual FOI response to Heather was heavily redacted and lacked the detail to come to many of the conclusions that the Telegraph were able to reach with their material.

  • I suppose the real quest is, to paraphrase Mick F, What is to sensitive to be released, myself I feel very little, if anything.

    Take the recent Wilkileaks, the earth has not caved in, the US army is still running around Afghanistan clueless as to what it should do. Although it has made more people understand the UK’s involvement in that war needs to be put to bed post haste.

    However, if the US and UK military are at the tax payers expense, killing innocent Afghans and making a bad situation worse. Those taxpayers should not have to rely on a secretive organisation like WilkiLeaks to gain such info.

    Once we concede a government department the job of considering what is to sensitive to be placed in the public domain, you no longer have freedom of information, do you?

    Looking back over the last decade, I cannot think of many, if any examples where to release UK government held info would make a bad situation worse, although I can think of countless examples where releasing info would have made a bad situation better.

    For example prior to the last Iraq war, the UK government had released all its ‘intelligence’ on Iraq WMD’s etc, I doubt the UK would have joined the USA in that criminal enterprise.

  • Local Government Officer

    Mickhall, I agree with everything you’ve written. Perhaps if policy were explained/publicised/debated properly, in a manner which was open and transparent, then we maybe would find FOI wouldn’t be invoked as much.

    I sort-of-kind-of agree with what DoppiaVu has written. So much of the FOI stuff that comes through is small beer. Meaningless, poorly-framed, and trivial. FOI could be a very mighty sword, but it is – at the very local level I deal with – weakly wielded.

    DoppiaVu, regarding what you have written: It would not be hard for any council, or government department, or public sector organisation, with current technology, to put online a copy of every document they pay for, every bit of research they do, every evaluation they undertake on a programme, or a notice of every tender they award, and stick a cost next to it. If there’s a need for it to have been done/awarded/whatever, then there should be no shame in putting on the site.

  • joeCanuck

    Agree LGO. Today it should not be hard at all to put non-confidential stuff on-line (personnel issues should be redacted at least). The default should be publish. There’s a long legacy of the Official Secrets Act to overcome, unfortunately. I think it was even technically against the law to say that you worked for the Government.
    DoppiaVu, are you in the right profession?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Thats fairly standard JJ and usually tactical.

    DRD also wait the full 20 days permissible to refuse on the grounds of being “Vexatious”.

  • I agree with Joe and LGO, however why is it then generally people concede the right to government to keep such a large wedge of their doings secret. Is it the majority just do not what the responsibility of having access to such info? Is it the weight of secrecy in history is so heavy we find it difficult to see another way of doing business, whether government or private?

    Has anyone seen any opinion pools about whether people feel the WilkiLeaks are a good thing or bad/whatever?

    I also take the point that those who work in local or national government are beginning to get snowed under with FoI requests, but there is an easy answer to that, do what has been suggest here and place info on line as the decisions are taken.

  • Local Government Officer

    Mick of the Hall variety wrote: “I also take the point that those who work in local or national government are beginning to get snowed under with FoI requests…”

    I can only speak from personal experience, but….no…we’re not, Mick. I think in the current financial year, we’ve had about four or five at the most.

    Just to clarify regarding what I wrote yesterday – it’s not the number – it’s the utter rubbish that people are asking about. It’s the number of times I’m sitting pulling the info together PRAYING they’ll follow up with the right questions. Local press deserve to have their typing fingers cut off solely for their lack of imagination. There are, of course, questions from companies too – “what was the total mobile phone bill for the last year and who’s your service provider?” That’s not tedious – that’s just good business sense, and should be the sort of info you have handy at all times.

    On the central government issue. I had a look at DARD’s site. If I’ve counted this correctly, it appears between January and April they released, either proactively or via FOI, ten “bits” of information. The disclosure log for 2009 shows 36 “reference” numbers. How much of a strain is this really, on a Department famed for being over-staffed…?

    Sorry for the rant. Mr Fealty has suggested making a list. Can we do this, perhaps under a central thread?

  • LGO,

    Thanks for this reply, and apologies for my gullibility in believing what I have read about this in the MSM. Although I would not put this small number of FoI applications about to much, as before you know it our saintly government will be demanding even more redundancies in the public sector 😉

    All the best.

  • DoppiaVu

    joeCanuck – you’re missing my point. It’s not that I have any in-principle objection to releasing information of any sort. Any FOI’s that come my way would relate to the actions of my team – and as I have complete confidence in my team I’m happy for their decisions to be scrutinised. Indeed, knowing that you may be called upon to defend your decisions to the public does a great job of keeping my officers on their toes, and provides a constant reminder that their actions have consequences out in the real world.

    My problem is resourcing.

    By far the bulk of the information requests that my team fields do not come down the FOI route…they are simple telephone/email enquiries. These requests tend to be about real-life issues that affect people’s day to day home or work life. At any point in time, I will generally have 1-2 officers on my team responding to these types of issue. We respond to these queries urgently, both because we want to give a good service, and because experience shows that the public will accept bad news (which it sometimes has to be) a lot better if you are direct and up front about things.

    By contrast, most of the FOI requests that I have received have been from students who are using us as an easy way to research dissertations and the like.

    I agree with LGO’s suggestion that putting scanned information onto the net would be relatively easy…particularly as most information we have gets scanned into an electronic format anyway. However, organising, reviewing, redacting (where necessary) does take time. And with potentially sensitive material it requires senior staff to make those decisions…which means that senior staff are diverted from other tasks they could be doing.

    I guess the bottom line is that the vast majority of govt officers would have no problem with any of this, provided that the amount of work involved was recognised and appropriate funding was provided. Which, given that most Local Authorities are in the process of getting rid of people (or at the very least, declaring a moritorium on recruitment) is very unlikely.