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.


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