Back in August when I got copies of Ken Foxe’s FOIs relating to John O’Donoghue one of the first things I noticed was the footers. For example, if you look at this document and look at the bottom, you will notice a web address. It’s not an internet web address per se, but it does give a clue as to how the expenses system in use by the Department is structured.
The word Oracle was all over the documents, so it didn’t take long to figure out that the expenses systems in use at the Department was Oracle iExpense, part of the Oracle e-business suite – notice the “OIE_EXPENSE_” towards the end of the address (I’m not quite sure why justice.gov.ie is mentioned). Thankfully Oracle manuals not just for iExpense, but also helpful instructions for the graphical user interface, and even instructions on how to install the application are all available online.
Other bits of information were also important. Cost centre numbers, fields detailing “expense type”, “justification”, “date”, “cost center purpose”, as well as ID numbers for every expense.
So back in August, while Mr O’Donoghue was still in office, I sent an FOI to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism:
In accordance with Section 7 of the above mentioned Acts, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Department of Arts, Sport & Tourism (“the Department”):
1) A list of all ID numbers and their respective names held within Oracle i-Expense that are available to the Department, for all dates.
2) A list of all “cost center numbers” held via Oracle i-Expense that are available to the Department.
3) A list of named “approvers” of expenses held via Oracle i-Expense that are available to the Department.
4) A list of “purposes” for expenses held via Oracle i-Expense that are available to the Department.
5) A copy of guidance given to civil servants and ministers on how they can claim expenses.
6) A copy of any training guides or manuals used by civil servants in the administration of expenses
I am already aware that the Department accesses records via the Oracle i-Expense web application. I have also looked at print outs from this system which make it clear that all claimed expenses are logged and detailed.
Additionally I know Oracle systems well, and have been careful to request information which is straightforward to obtain. Should you find yourself in any difficulty I would be happy to discuss how the information can be tabulated electronically or printed in a straightforward, fast and cost-effective manner.
Since data in Oracle i-Expense can be tabulated concurrent to other processes, I cannot imagine the requested information taking very long to gather and submit, or it interfering with normal day-to-day activities.
My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital format. However if this proves too costly for the Department I am happy to inspect the records in person as is my right under section 12(1)(d) of the Act. Inspecting the records in person I believe would cost nothing.
Please find enclosed a postal order in the amount of €15 in respect of the fee for a request under the Acts. I look forward to hearing from you in the time period prescribed.
If you decide to request further payment I would like to be provided with an itemised fees receipt outlining precisely why an additional cost is required.
Please contact me by email to discuss any problems which may occur with this request.
Four weeks later I received my reply. My entire request was rejected on the basis that my request would compromise the “integrity of financial IT systems of the Department”. Section 21 (Functions and negotiations of a public body), Section 23 (Law enforcement and public safety) and Section 28 (Personal Information) were all cited exemptions, however no subsections were included, which makes writing an appeal for internal review all the more difficult.
I emailed the deciding officer, seeking the subsections being cited, as is my right under the Act. No reply was forthcoming.
It was now early October, so I decided to write a followup FOI to the test one I had sent. Instead of seeking various components of the database, I sought the entire database:
I also aimed to preempt what I felt were unjustified exemptions. Some time after I sent this new FOI in early October, I received a written reply to my request for subsections, this was three or four weeks after I had asked for them. The delay in receiving a reply would have made constructing an appeal for internal review difficult, as there are time limits on appeals. I let that FOI go.
Four weeks after the fresh FOI for the entire database I received a reply. My request was again rejected on the same exemptions. I then drafted an appeal for internal review on that request, costing €75. I used much of the same language I had used in my request, arguing that I believed the cited exemptions were unjustified. Two weeks later, and now into December, I received my reply. The internal reviewer agreed with the original rejection.
I now have six months in which to appeal the decision to the Information Commissioner. I will do so. I believe that since all of this data is stored on databases at taxpayers expense, we are entitled to see the databases’ structure. Why is there a backend operation system at all? Why is the backend not the frontend (i.e. available to the public)? Many other departments use the Oracle database software – and it would do a great deal to promote transparency if all of these databases were available to the public. I’ll keep trying via the appeals process and keep you updated here.