Freedom of Information: The World of Hurt

25 April 2014

By Simon McGarr

This post was published April 20 on the website of McGarr Solicitors, located in Dublin, Ireland. McGarr’s twitter account is @tupp_ed.

Gavin Sheridan has an excellent essay in today’s Sunday Independent, debunking all the arguments advanced for our State’s insistence on charging an upfront fee for making a Freedom of Information request. You should hurry away and read it.

Consider this post a footnote to Gavin’s piece. I wanted to write a little bit about the arguments that aren’t advanced to justify our fees regime. I wanted to give an explanation for how the state apparatus came to be wedded to restricting citizens’ (including journalists’) access to information. As Gavin shows, the ones we’re told in public don’t hold any water. So, here is my brief explanation of explanations that dare not speak their name.

Here’s what you have to understand first. Politicians in power will always hate Freedom of Information. Just take that as a given. It takes away one of their few advantages when faced with opposition (those advantages growing fewer each year as ungovernable social media gradually overtakes controllable mass media). It makes dissembling difficult and turns misinformation into a pistol pointed at their own heads. For politicians in power, there is no real upside for Freedom of Information, except a nebulous sort of recognition if they do the right thing by it.

So, that’s the political class’ instinct. What is special about Ireland’s situation is that Freedom of Information is a running sore in the administrative class- the Civil Service. I can only assert this, and you can choose to believe me or not when I say it, but the Civil Service hates FOI. Hates it, and resents it but most of all- above everything else- is upset by it.

Upset. I really can’t stress enough that the absolutism, the determination to plough ahead regardless of public opinion or political consequences when it comes to FOI fees is driven largely by a mass, emotional response within the Civil Service. At every level, for different reasons, Civil Servants are stressed and angry when an FOI request appears. Let me take you on a gentle wander through some of the reasons why.

I draw for these speculations on my experiences working as a Civil Servant, sitting at the desk beside my Office’s FOI officer. All characters are fiction, though their motivations may be true.

You’re in a frontline office. You’re a junior manager. You have a medium-sized staff of disgruntled employees to manage a job designed for a large staff. You and the staff are, quite literally, abused as a matter of routine by people who you feel that you struggle to do right by. It’s an effort just to make it through the day and you get stressed at night if you think of the morning.

Now, a message has arrived to your inbox. Someone has asked an FOI question. To answer it, you and every other social welfare office manager in the country will have to send statistics back to the FOI officer on a tight timeframe. Your face flushes. You can hardly keep up with the work you have, you’re getting abuse all the time and then some joker wants you to pull staff off counters to collect up info you didn’t think you’d need to compile at all for months, until the Annual Report rolled around.

In your mind’s eye, you see the snaking queues building as half the counters are closed. You already can hear the added frustration and conflict this will generate.

No, you don’t want to see more FOI requests. If you had your way, you’d add two zeros to the fee and hope everyone stopped using the damned act altogether. It’s wasting Civil Servants time and taking them away from doing real work.

You ring the FOI officer to give him a piece of your mind.

***

Now, you’re at the top of the tree. A senior Civil Servant deeply embedded in matters of policy and national importance. You have a well qualified staff of bright graduates in the office outside your room. Not many, granted, but probably three or four. Enough to filter most of the problems that struggle upstream to you, leaping like salmon over middle managers.

But now there’s an email for you from the department’s FOI officer (printed out and left on your desk to read, as you don’t use those computer things). She’s been building an excel table of expenses in response to an FOI query from a journalist. There are standing orders that nothing should be released on FOI without it being given prior approval at the highest level.

That’s you. And you realise you are going to have to work out what these thousands of spreadsheet numbers mean and also, whether releasing them into the wild would mean your department or minister will find themselves in the headlines for all the wrong reasons next week.

You look at your diary. It’s filled with meetings, longstanding inter-departmental engagements and ministerial briefings. You look at the time limit for response in the email- a few days at best. The FOI officer’s excuse was that the line offices just wouldn’t respond to her emails as she was trying to compile the chart. You look again at the thousands of little boxes filled with tiny numbers.

Your face flushes. What sort of Act lets some joker of a journalist derail an entire department with his fishing expeditions?

You pick up the phone to have the FOI Officer summoned to your office to explain herself.

***

You’re an FOI Officer trying to do their job. I think you know by now why you might be feeling upset.

***

I’m not saying any of these responses are correct. But I do think that we have to understand them- to put ourselves in other people’s shoes- to know why they are cleaving to apparently irrational positions. The Civil Service experiences FOI as an upsetting, stressful and wasteful interruption from the job they’re assigned to do.

If we’re going to be able to persuade them from the current policy of building the walls around FOI even higher instead of pulling them down, we have to find better ways, for both citizen and administrator, of getting what we want.

In the short term, there are a couple of policies that could be adopted to take some of the sting from FOI.

1) Publish every FOI request and their responses.

Avoid duplication of work by just putting everything asked for and given into the public domain. Some Departments do this already. In theory, this eliminates the chance of a scoop for journalists from an FOI answer. In practice, as we learned during recent convulsions, the media rarely wander off the beaten path of Press Releases and off the record briefings anyway.

2) Identify certain valuable classes of information and publish them all on a regular calendar, Service-wide. Don’t wait to be asked.

The obvious choice here is to publish every line of expenditure from the departmental databases on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. The precedent for that disclosure has already been set.Maybe you can come up with your own interesting class of data?

3) Stop pandering to the paper-fetish. Just disclose data as data, not photocopies of printed out computer files.

This is really a no-brainer, but that it still needs to be said is evidence of the howling rage at the heart of FOI as things stand.

Long-term, the solution to the Civil Service’s Freedom of Information problem is to change how they handle and view all information. Records are siloed so local managers have to scramble to compile them. They should be open and identifiable from across the organisations. Files aren’t managed according to any document management criteria, even if any has been notionally set. As a result, finding where a given set of records may be can involve a physical search across multiple offices. And so on. It’s only when the administration of the state has a handle on its own information will it be able to effortlessly release whatever it ought to the rest of us.

And if that every happened, we wouldn’t just have gained a revolution in transparency. We’d have a state fit for the 21st Century.

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