NI Water: ICO launch ‘depth’ investigation of emails…

And, so according to the Daily Mirror today (attached), the saga continues. Weather permitting, the Information Commissioner’s Office is sending a very senior investigative team to Northern Ireland Water before Christmas to look at two sets of issues surrounding regarding FOI requests for specific email correspondence.

One will examine an allegation that the text of one email was altered before being offered for public release. The other will look at a separate allegation that the existence of an email exchange was denied in response to an FOI request, before the PAC meeting of July 1st.  So far as Slugger knows, neither case directly concerns the deletion of an email in Mr MacKenzie’s inbox back in September.

Footnote: There is no doubt that all of these requests for information through FOI is putting an almost unbearable burden upon the civil servants concerned. At some point there must be an opportunity to make a fresh start and begin over.

– Here’s my take on the structural problem in an audioboo with Will Perrin at the Belfast @PiCamp

– Lyra McKee’s altogether more technically cogent outline at the same event…

– Alan In Belfast talks about how we need to get beyond what is an inefficient confrontational dirty process

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  • Local Government Officer

    Mick, regarding your audioboo, and bearing in mind I’m not a Civil Servant, you’re absolutely right about “institutional walls”. In addition, you’re talking about a sector of society who are not “up to speed” in terms of the technology. They are not trained to deal with it, and they don’t want to be.

    That said, I found what Lyra McKee said to be incredibly patronising. Again, I am not a civil servant, but in my (brief) public sector life, I have not found any reason to hide or withhold any information requested by journalists or the public. In my working life, much lower down the rungs of public sector society, the decisions are taken by Councillors – and as such, we should (and I do) feel free and unencumbered by any notions of corporate loyalty in giving out that information.

    Mick, you certainly snagged a big one with this story – but if there’s a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being your own efforts on this, most of the FOIs coming in are barely scraping 2 or 3. And I’m being generous at that.

    In terms of “confrontation”, my own ire is raised when a lazy local press journalist asks a scatter-gun FOI, and makes it nothing more than a sensationalist headline in the local rag, without ever actually asking for explanation or engaging in discourse with whatever organisation it gleans that information from. Frankly it’s a disease I see more and more in the press. But let me – from the other side of the fence – say this.

    I want to see every and any cost of service or equipment posted on each organisation’s website in an easily-accessible format. Equally I want to see less “Banbridge Council spent £1500 on tea, coffee and biscuits for meetings last year” appearing as a headline.

    I want to see the public sector in some sort of engagement with the public in terms of educating them about what has to be done, and what it costs to deliver services, and less Nolan-esque, uneducated and unwilling-to-be-educated outbursts from “Outraged of Carryduff”. I do not denigrate anyone’s right to question the cost or relevancy of services. I do, however, reserve the right to be critical when it is presented in a manner which is frankly misleading.

    I’d really love see is some sort of “truce” or relationship building or training whereby public sector workers are free to access and give out information without the 21 day charade. Ultimately though, I’d like to see the same rules being applied to the private sector. There’s enough dirt out there with some of the companies I worked with to keep the public sector looking at the very least a shade of off-white for some time to come.

    By the way…what does Stephen Nolan get paid out of our licence fee…? 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    @LGO

    “Equally I want to see less “Banbridge Council spent £1500 on tea, coffee and biscuits for meetings last year” appearing as a headline.”

    Indeed. It is almost impossible to understand the value of public service if the fact recovered is embued with meaning and value just because it is recovered after a long and unnecessarily ardous struggle.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Perhaps uniquely in this instance, those requesting the information were in receipt of those emails and knew of their existence and content.

    The ICO has scope to bring criminal charges, since it is within that all important 6 month window.

  • Cynic2

    The problem is the entire culture of the NI Government which is to hide and obfuscate – whether the question is from a member of the public or an elected politician. They just don’t want to be exposed because they don’t want to be accountable …. in many cases it comes as a shock to them that they might be.

    A driver in this is an ingrained doctrine on Ministerial accountability – ‘well Minister we are all in this together and if this were exposed it might be seen to reflect badly ion your management of the Department’ . Couple this with an introverted Civil Service that is 20 years behind the rest of the UK (not in itself a beacon of excellence) and Ministers who are weak or risk adverse and you get the breeding ground for this nonsense.

    The level of non adherence to legal requirements in areas like contracts is truly shocking. Some of it is down to ignorance and poor training but some of it stinks of petty (and occasionally no so petty) corruption

  • The acquisition of information is compounded by the slipperiness of Ministerial replies:

    Minister for Regional Development: My Department has not requested that any documents relating to the ongoing Public Accounts Committee inquiry into Procurement Governance in Northern Ireland Water be ‘classified’.

    However, my Department has identified elements of the information it has provided to the Committee which are sensitive and has asked for this information to be handled appropriately. source

    Perhaps more definitions are required.

  • bittersweet

    There is no doubt that thee has been a significant increase in F.O.I activity in general and specifically around the N.I.W mess.
    It has to be recognised however that very often this is compounded by the prevarication, and evasive tactics deployed to avoid answering a direct question.
    Thus necessitating a further more specific F.O.I to try and get the information required. Is this how the F.O.I process was meant to work and what does it say about the attitude prevailing in public bodies about complying not only with the spirit but the letter of the law.

    Anyone following the N.I.W saga can see how little interest the key players have in complying with the law.

    In McKenzie’s case two ICO investigations is indicitive enough of his contempt for fulfilling his obligations to behave in a manner consistent with his role as C.E.O at one level and his requirement to respect the law at another.

    It also is indicitive of the rather ambiguous attitude the Board of N.I.W have to matters of probity and integrity -is this acceptable at any level in public life never mind at the top of one of the most costly utilities funded by us the taxpayer?

    I think not.

  • observer

    Where is the bbc in all of this – Nolan, Talkback,(which has definitely lost its edge since David Dunseath left the chair), the political and business journalists. Is there professional jealousy at play because UTV broke this rotten story of correuption first and beat the BBC to it?

    Perhaps Govt/ Senior civil servants have had a talk with senior BBC officials and come to a cosy little arrangement. It was cosy little arrangements between CEO Mackenzie and CEO McKeown from CCNI that got the latter into trouble and showed the consumer council up as having lost its teeth.

  • Oh i wonder who’s FOI’s those are 🙂

    On a side note i see OFMDFM were told they could do better in relation to the awarding of single tender action relating to a Opinion Poll before the Justice Minister appointment

  • Mick Fealty

    @bittersweet

    The first ICO investigation wasn’t anything on the scale of what they are planning this time. In fact, I’ve never heard of such an on-the-ground investigation in Northern Ireland of any organisation.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Mick
    Perhaps the ICO were not happy with the first response…
    “Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure.
    77. (1) Where-
    (a) a request for information has been made to a public authority, and
    (b) under section 1 of this Act or section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998, the
    applicant would have been entitled (subject to payment of any fee) to communication of any information in accordance with that section,any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces,blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information
    to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.
    (2) Subsection (1) applies to the public authority and to any person who is employed by,is an officer of, or is subject to the direction of, the public authority.
    (3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to afine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
    (4) No proceedings for an offence under this section shall be instituted-
    (a) in England or Wales, except by the Commissioner or by or with the consent of
    the Director of Public Prosecutions;
    (b) in Northern Ireland, except by the Commissioner or by or with the consent of
    the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland.”

  • westlandwoes

    This information commission officer investigation into Mackenzie might just go the way of all the other investigations – covered up and kicked into the long grass. The minister needs to take action here – why should he stop at just Priestly. McKenzie is showing worse tendencies than Priestly and looks like he has zero regard for standards and ethics as to how to conduct himself. But the PAC got close to this back in July and have a chance to uncover the truth here. Maybe that is what the minister is waiting for.

  • NIAO’s Christmas present to DRD and some other departments; NIW gets a mention.

    Mr Donnelly found the standard of financial reporting across central government was high.

    However, he said that 2009-2010 was a year when a larger number of accounts than usual received qualifications on the grounds of truth and fairness.

    He indicated that one of the main reasons was the failure to obtain proper approval for the procurement of services.

    Irregular payments

    The report said several departments were guilty of making
    irregular payments without proper approval.
    BBC NI News “£140m spent by Executive on irregular payments”.

  • westlandwoes

    This report has interesting timing and it poses a few puzzlers: 1) Northern Ireland Water is not alone on this “iregular spend” lark – almost half of all government departments seem to have it! 2) Northern Ireland Water are eligible in 2009/10 for only about 3% of the total value – so why single it out for extra special treatment? 3) Is Paul Maskey going to say “shock, horror” if he thought Northern Ireland Water was bad, what about the rest? 4) this shows more and more that Priestly, Mackenzie and others were definitely upto no good and the IRT was a stitch up.