Archive for February 2nd, 2009

02
Feb
09

Freedom of Information: a response

I’ve received an e-mail regarding my post on my adventures with a freedom of information request to the Department of Justice, challenging my claim that the civil service holds the Freedom of Information Act in contempt. The writer requested that if I post any part of the e-mail here I wouldn’t identify him as this would likely cause him “big shit” (I didn’t know civil servants could swear). I wouldn’t have risked it, but he made a fair point that deserves airing. I’ve done my best to obscure personal details.

I was an FOI officer for a very large Government Department, and the response you got from that FOI Officer in DoJ was rubbish, and totally wrong (as you pointed out).

However, in defence of FoI officers, any that I know (and I’d know a few), do not hold FoI in contempt as you mentioned:

“Of course this is symptomatic of the general contempt for freedom of information displayed by our civil servants, addicted as they are to the culture of secrecy granted to them by Charlie Haughey’s Official Secrets Act of 1963. These guys personally resent examination of how they do their jobs and see the Freedom of Information Act as something that should at most be pacified and preferably ignored completely.”

When I was an FoI officer, I always assumed (and this is how we were trained by the Civil Service Training and Development Centre) that everything was automatically releaseable to whomever asked for it, and to refuse anything we had to go through a long process and justify why we couldn’t release it. Every decision I made was automatically appealable to my supervisor (at Assistant Principal level), and his decision was also appealable to the Information Commissioner.

Well done on following up on that idiot in DoJ, though, and for publicising it, keep up the good work.

It was, I accept, unfair of me to charge all FOI officers for the sins of this one individual. I take that back. However, I remain unconvinced that there isn’t a culture of secrecy within many levels of the civil service. Many, many journalists I’ve spoken to have told me of incidents with requests similar to mine. I believe the individual above when he says he assumes all information is releasable, yet I’m also sure there is an “old guard” within many departments whose first instinct is to protect its operation from outside examination, and for this we have the Official Secrets Act to thank.

But that’s just my opinion. The more important information to take from this e-mail is that it backs up my claim that the DoJ officer is taking the piss, and when this happens the best option is to challenge then.

02
Feb
09

Dublin, I hardly knew ye

It occurs to me that the world’s great cities need character. This might sound mighty pretentious, not least because I can’t define what I mean by ‘character’. Nonetheless, I’m certain all great cities have an atmosphere you can feel through your skin like the company of a good friend. New York, for instance, is the world’s great city as it’s the one with the most character. You feel the buzz of the place as soon as you leave the airport. Chicago, a place dear to my heart, also has a certain uniqueness about it. Even Galway, where I studied for four years, has a character guaranteed by its healthy population of students, musicians, hippies and sophisticated culchies.

I mention this as I’ve been living in Dublin for just over 7 months now and I still haven’t found anything that might be described as ‘character’. I’ve been searching for the Dublin that Joyce wrote about, or at least Damien Dempsey, but to no avail. This has ultimately lead me to leave the city.

Truth be told, the decision to leave was largely made for me, due to a change in circumstance (but I can’t really talk about that). But it would have been very possible to stay in Dublin. However, I thought to myself, “why bother?” There was nothing compelling me to stay, and so I got the train south.

For the moment I’m back at my folks’ place, but I know I’m going to get sick of this before too long as well. I’m not sure where I’ll go after that. I might move back to Galway, or I might leave the country altogether. Of course I could be convinced to return to Dublin if some position comes up, but I’ll be very slow to move back to the north side.