Wednesday, March 18, 2015

FOI


I posted a comment on The Story blog some time back relating my own experience operating Freedom of Information legislation in its early days in Ireland.

There have been a lot of developments in this area since then and I have not kept up with them. In general it seems the system has been made more difficult and expensive for those seeking information although there are lots of promises around to reverse this negative trend.

In any event, I thought it might be interesting for people to have an insider's view, however brief, of how this operated in the beginning. So I have reproduced my original comment below.



I dealt with a number of FOI requests pre-2000, including one on a very high profile issue.

I operated the Act as I thought it had been intended: maximum release consistent with things like commercial sensitivity, cabinet confidentiality, privileged legal advice, etc. Fees were nugatory, if charged, which in most cases were not.

As a citizen, but clearly with inside knowledge of the process, I thought it worked well on a number of fronts. For example, it made a lot of information, which could be avoided being given in Parliamentary Questions, available, by right, to the requester. An aspect which was not often touched on was the protection it provided for the individual releasing the information. Without it they would have been in contravention of the Official Secrets Act. It was also of some use to whistleblowers who could prime a requester to seek information which they could then release with impunity.

As a civil servant dealing with requests, it drove me insane. Even with the best will in the world, records were not held then in a form which made finding and providing them easy. Filing systems were on a totally different basis which had not anticipated FOI. Most records were hard copy and a far cry from the push-button compilation imagined by the public. No additional resources were made available to those processing requests and simultaneously juggling the day job. The use made by journalists of material, which took a lot of resources to assemble and often contained very meaty material, was often derisory. I recall one file, which took a lot of compiling, simply resulting in the publication of a photo (not included in the file) of a former Supreme Court judge in a pair of shorts on a pier in Kerry. That said, I did have dealings with what I consider serious journalists and I think, in those cases, we ended up mutually respecting each other.

So, overall, my attitude was one of welcome for the 1998 FOI, particularly from the point of view of the citizen.

I’m penning this just to get one person’s thoughts from both sides of the fence on the record.

I don’t have any significant experience of implementing FOI post 2000, but I can imagine that must have been a period of serious retrenchment. The original act was drawn up by Eithne FitzGerald who knew exactly what she was doing, but many of her colleagues didn’t and many of them and their successors were subsequently appalled at how it operated in practice.

Certainly, for a brief period, at any rate, it looked like it was changing the culture. You have been using it since and would be the better judge of how it has now turned out.



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