Taoiseach Enda Kenny defended plans to increase fees for Freedom of Information requests on November 13th, calling the fee “relatively small.” He went on to dismiss widespread outrage over the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 from academics, journalists, civil rights groups and legal bodies by saying “experts don’t always get it right themselves, either.”
Similarly, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, that week described the increased fee as a “token charge” that is “appropriate in the current climate,” though it could be debated over on which climate he is referring to; the economic climate, or the political climate. Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte joined in, saying on Morning Ireland that “it’s very sad to have to listen to academics on this and every other programme talk about killing of the Freedom of Information Act.” He continued by reminding listeners that it is still free for citizens to request information relating to them personally, and said “for journalists who want relevant information in the public interest, you know the position.” The bill was published on the 25th July, and it represents the biggest development in Freedom of Information law in over a decade, but not for the better.
Introduced in 1997, the original Freedom of Information Act granted access of official documents to the public and the media, at a time when only twenty or so countries had national FOI laws. It was intended to be a measure to increase transparency and discourage corruption, but central to the concept of a FOI regime is that it is in the public interest. Even where there are exemptions, such as in protection of privacy or maintaining confidentiality in national security, the motivation for exclusion from FOI access was public interest. The sponsoring Minister, Eithne Fitzgerald said of the act that it “will turn the culture of the Official Secrets Act on its head” and that the decision whether or not to release a document would be determined by “whether the balance of the public interest lies in disclosure or in withholding the information concerned.” Ultimately though, she presented FOI in Ireland as being about permanently shifting “the balance of power between the citizen and the state.”
“Six years after the act was introduced, the Fianna Fail government made severe changes to the Act with the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act of 2003. Under the new act, there would be an upfront fee for Freedom of Information requests, causing the number of requests made by journalists between 2003 and 2004 to drop by 83%.”
One of the earliest supporters of FOI legislation in Ireland was the union for key grades of civil servants, the Association of Higher Civil Servants (AHCS). At their annual conference in 1983, the AHCS chairman supported the idea of a Freedom of Information Act, reportedly arguing that it “might dispel the mystery and secrecy which often surrounded the working of the civil service and would bring a new openness into government.” He also suggested that it might protect civil servants against improper pressure exerted by ministers.
This optimism was not well founded, six years after the act was introduced, the Fianna Fail government made severe changes to the Act with the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act of 2003. Under the new act, there would be an upfront fee for Freedom of Information requests, causing the number of requests made by journalists between 2003 and 2004 to drop by 83%.
Fine Gael and Labour both publicly condemned the amendment, and in their Programme for Government in 2011, they promised to “legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing government.” In reality, the 2013 Bill is a huge step in the same direction. Not only does it retain upfront fees, but also had a clause in Amendment 33 that where requests are made up of two or more “parts,” seeking information from different areas within a department, the person making the request would have to pay a fee for each part. This amendment has since been withdrawn following public pressure, but only so that it may be re-worded. According to an article in the Irish Independent by Independent TD Stephen Donnelly, Minister Howlin acknowledged that the reason for charging fees was to “manage demand.” Ireland is one of just three countries that charge upfront fees for FOI requests.
According to the still present Section 27, a fee may be required there “the estimated cost of the search for and retrieval of the record concerned,” which “shall be calculated at the rate of such amount per hour … in respect of the time that was spent.”
Perhaps most bizarre though, is the provision in Section 17 that “the FOI body shall take reasonable steps to search for and extract the … having due regard to the steps that would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format.” Reasonable action then is defined against how inconvenient it might be to grant a request for information if computers were not invented, or at least if it involved printing out an entire database and going through the information by hand. The bill is therefore indicative of a culture of secrecy and mistrust of the public, and signals an unwillingness by the government to engage in politics and governance in an open manner.
In that context, there is a greater need for watchdog organisations, and one potential example might be Dailwatch.ie. Founded by former Trinity student Sarah O’Neill, Dailwatch.ie is a one year old website that is intended to be a bridge over the gap between the public and politicians. TDs have profiles on the site, and users can see their attendance and voting records and directly pose them questions. TDs can then respond directly to those questions in a style of potential civic engagement that could only be facilitated by the internet.
The site has two moderators who oversee that questions conform to the code of conduct, Sarah, and an intern who updates the blog and voting records. Dailwatch.ie also has an advisory board consisting of Stephen Collins; Political Editor of the Irish Times, Prof. David Farrell; who holds a chair of politics at UCD, Dr. Colum Kenny; Professor of Communications at DCU, and Dr. Jane Suiter; a political analyst and researcher at DCU. They are consulted on issues relating to the code of conduct, and are regularly updated with how the site is running, but they are not involved in its day to day running.
Speaking to Trinity News, Dailwatch.ie CEO Sarah O’Neill says that it was set up as a transparency website, “that might sound a bit lofty, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s about openness.” The idea was to get away from the perception of spin, coming either from the media or political institutions themselves. “There seems to have been a massive breakdown in communication. We’ve had a massive national crisis, and I suppose this was meant to be a clear direct channel where they could ask direct questions and get direct answers.” The site has already had over 160,000 hits to the site, and has engaged over 30% of TDs. Sarah admits that “getting TDs engaged in the platform and getting citizens to ask questions has been more challenging than I initially anticipated. Obviously even if the model makes sense, it doesn’t mean it will just take off. But it is a critical mass kind of thing, once you get a certain number of people and asking questions of a certain number of TDs championing it, a few others will follow hopefully.” It can also be difficult that certain TDs who would be engaged, aren’t being asked questions of, but for those that are, “its been pretty consistent across party and age bracket.”
Dailwatch.ie emerged out of the now prevalent trend of social entrepreneurship, which attempts to solve perceived social problems with business models. The profit motive is replaced with clearly set out desired outcomes. This is one of social entrepreneurships biggest problems, that it attempts to quantify what are usually extremely complex social problems that don’t necessarily have easily quantifiable solutions. Oftentimes, the desire to affect observable change comes before articulating why there is such a problem in the first place, and why it should be addressed. This is not as much of a problem for Dailwatch.ie though, because it is clear from the outset that the implicit value is that openness in government is in the public interest, and it’s easy to quantify political engagement along their model: use of and participation in the website. It is currently reliant on grants provided by the Rowntree Trust, Change Nation and Wave Change, but the goal is to become sustainable through money from party campaigning funds. “The revenue model is that eventually TDs will upgrade their profile and contribute financially to the site to use as a campaigning tool.”
“What’s happening with the FOI bill now is outrageous. There’s absolutely no economic argument for regressing the current openness that we have.”
Dailwatch.ie is based on the German site Parliamentwatch.org.org, who identified Ireland as a country that might benefit from a similar model. Sarah came into contact with Parliamentwatch.org at a social entrepreneurship convention run by Ashoka, an international social entrepreneurship organisation. Parliamentwatch.org received a grant from the Rowntree Foundation to set up an Irish version of their model, and Sarah was asked to spearhead the project. “I spent a summer in Germany training with them, and then I came back over here and launched it. Now it’s up and running and independent. We’re developing a new tool independent to Ireland and the German team has very little if any involvement with us.”
When asked whether what Dailwatch does is a role for social enterprise or is something that the Dail should be doing anyway; Sarah said “It would affect the neutrality of it for one thing. But I’d be delighted if the government provided some service like this. I’ve no objections to that.” I put it to her that it might be very cynical to say that the government can’t be trusted to be truthful about itself, but she responded that she would hopefully be below the average in terms of cynicism. “With something like this I think you have to be, but at the same time, it’s important that no matter how good a government is, even if you have the best government in the world, there still needs to be some oversight, and there still needs to be some independence.”
Dailwatch.ie is hardly a radical approach, and it’s been endorsed by Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Michael Martin. Sarah is still aware though, of the situation Dailwatch.ie has entered.
“What’s happening with the FOI bill now is outrageous. There’s absolutely no economic argument for regressing the current openness that we have. We’re the only EU country to charge fees for initial inquiries and now they’re talking about increasing them exponentially. Obviously I think it reinforces the importance of different projects outside government like this.” When the government has made explicit overtures that it is unwilling to engage with an engaged public, organisations like Dailwatch.ie are a welcome addition to the Irish political landscape.