My letter to Brendan Howlin re: FOI Fees

Below is an edited version of the letter I faxed to Brendan Howlin today regarding Freedom of Information Act fees proposed last Friday at the end of legislative drafting before the Committee Stage in the Irish Parliament.

While I agree that public service resources need to be utilised efficiently, particularly in the current (apparently getting better) economic context, I disagree that putting a paywall up (which is the practical effect of the fees proposed) is the solution. Better results could be achieved by actually managing information as an asset and ensuring appropriate governance and joined up thinking.

Dear Minister Howlin,

It was with dismay that I learned of the proposals in the current draft Freedom of Information Bill regarding the charging of fees. Simply put: the proposal regarding fees is dangerously retrograde, belies a failure of customer/citizen-centricity in Public Sector thinking and a missed opportunity to mandate improvements in Data Governance, runs counter to your own initiatives in relation to “Open Data”, and may indeed serve to weaken any strategy to break down ‘silo thinking’ in Public Service organisations to achieve operational efficiencies through better use of data internally.

· Dangerously Retrograde:

Creating an uncapped initial application fees structure for simple exercise of Freedom of Information rates is a dangerously retrograde step. Much of the waste in Public Service organisations over the past few years has been uncovered through journalists and others using FOI rights carefully.

An uncapped application fees structure, particularly the provisions which give rise to additional charges where data requests span multiple “administrative units”, creates a financial disincentive for budget-conscious editors or freelance investigative journalists to seek information which might be in the Public Interest.

By effectively curtailing the avenues of information access for citizens to only those who have resources to take an unknown punt on the final costs or to the official press releases our FOI regime that was weakened in 2003 will have been replaced with a model for ‘mushroom management’ in which citizens will be kept in the dark and fed what’s good for mushrooms.

· Failure of Customer/Citizen-centricity and Data Governance:

The erection of a “paywall” that will inevitably act as a disincentive to exercise of FOI rights belies a failure of Customer/Citizen-centricity in the Irish Public Sector. In tandem it highlights a failure to seize a valuable opportunity to drive strategic change in Data Governance processes, practices, and methodologies in the Public Service.

Rather than seeing the challenges raised by requests as an issue which must be curtailed through charges, the Irish Government can choose to invest some effort to understand the root causes of the issues that are reported. For example

o Could it be that multi-part requests being submitted under the current system are likely a function of journalists needing to maximize the ‘bang for their buck’ on each individual request. Removing this may remove the multi-part queries?

o How many queries relate to ‘standard’ information or reports which might be ‘pre-packaged’, perhaps in formats that require additional analysis by the requestor, but which meet the requirement for access to information?

o Are FOI access and accessibility a primary consideration in the design of new systems and processes? If not, should the Data Governance structures of departments be addressed to ensure “FOI-by-design” (producing standardized core reports etc), in the same way as “Privacy by Design” will be a requirement under the forthcoming EU Data Protection Regulation?

I am currently engaged in a project [details of project redacted for publication] where FOI requirements under regulations such as the Aarhus Convention as well as their voluntary compliance with various regulatory standards have been identified as key strategic drivers for precisely this kind of Data Governance change and re-alignment. The project team has identified further substantial benefits arising from the improvements in Data Governance and Information Quality in this organization that go beyond simple Freedom of Information capabilities.

By opting for a “paywall” that will keep enquiries out the Government is ignoring an internal dissatisfaction with status quo that can be leveraged to trigger and hopefully sustain Data Governance change in the Irish Public Sector. By knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, an opportunity to improve is being foregone.

· Free Information, Open Data: Fees are inconsistent with Open Data Strategy

Frankly my head is spinning trying to figure out what the strategic position regarding information is from the Government.

On one hand you are promoting “Open Data”, while on the other you are proposing changes that will make it harder for citizens (not just journalists) to get access to information in accordance with their rights.

Ultimately, it is my professional view that the very Data Governance and Information Quality benefits that the proposed “paywall” is forgoing in the context of FOI will inevitably emerge as challenges and barriers to producing Open Data that can be relied upon for service planning, development of applications, guiding investment strategies etc.

The “pre-packed” reporting solutions outlined above (which I believe were raised by Gavin Sheridan during the legislative consultation period) are Open Data. By implementing these and addressing root causes for current issues and inefficiencies in the FOI model in Ireland the Government has an opportunity for a double-win. Instead we are presented with cognitive dissonance where the Government trumpets Open Data with one hand but claws back Information Freedom with the other, while forgoing any operational efficiency benefits which would arise from tackling root causes in Data Governance practices.

· Breaking Down Silo Thinking in the Public Service

The Haddington Road Agreement aims to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the Public Sector and to reduce costs. Ultimately it will need to break down the traditional “silo” thinking that exists in all large organisations, and the provisions regarding staff mobility hint to that.

However the proposed charging structures under the FOI proposals run counter to this strategic vision. If one was cynical it could be described as a “Silos Charter” given that additional charging will be tied to the number of administrative units in which data is being processed.

What controls are being implemented to ensure that there is no fragmentation of administrative units to split data processing within FOI-able entities? In the absence of controls it is inevitable that fragmentation will exist, particularly in the context of processes, projects, or functions that might be of notable interest to people seeking to exercise their FOI rights.

On the other hand, improving Data Governance (data standards, meta-data, master data, clarification of data ownership rights, rules and accountabilities) and seeking to identify common methods for developing and delivering standardized reports would inevitably result in a breaking down of silos and the promotion of cross-functional ways of working within the Public Service.

However, hiding the silos behind a paywall appears to be the easy path which the preferred choice of the Government.

Conclusion

There is a significant potential opportunity to drive change in the governance and management of information in the Irish Public Sector. This change aligns with the objectives of Open Data and has potentially far reaching benefits beyond just FOI effectiveness.

A PayWall, which is what an uncapped open-ended application fee is in practice, removes this driver and allows both current inefficiencies to fester and current efficiencies to remain siloed, and deprives the citizen of their opportunity to find out answers to their questions of Government. Raising the paywall potentially beyond the reach of individuals, freelance journalists, and mainstream media is a dangerous retrograde step for transparent democracy.

FOI is the Parliamentary Question for the individual – it should not be locked away behind a paywall

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