It’s a long time coming.
Readers may recall that back in 2010, FAS closed their internal bulletin board after staff had been “posting nasty messages on the internal notice board about Rody Molloy, the deposed director-general”, according to then Senator Shane Ross.
In the article, Ross noted:
At least one fun-loving outsider tried to break into the staff intranet board. According to FAS, “an external internet blog posted the internal address of the bulletin board pages and sought access”. FAS proudly declares that it became aware of the attempted breach and stopped the rot.
This was not entirely true. What had actually happened was that this blog was being discussed, and linked to, from the FAS internal bulletin board. We saw it in our referral traffic, as this blog post outlines. We never attempted to “break into” it.
Of course what we actually did was request from FAS a copy of the bulletin board under FOI. Our request was phrased thusly:
1) All briefing documents related to the appearance by FAS staff, or their representatives, at the Public Accounts Committee hearings of February 2010.
2) A ‘datadump’ (MySQL export) of the entirety of the internal PHP bulletin board located at this address:
3) A screengrab of the entire thread at http://intra.fasoffice.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?t=11270. This will likely be in .jpeg format, or multiple jpegs, depending on the length of the thread.
4) A ‘datadump’ of the entirety of the Agency’s CORE database inasmuch as such data relates to expenses claimed.
FAS refused our request citing various sections including the not oft used ‘frivolous/vexatious’ component of Section 10. In their refusal to release the database, FAS used some rather spurious reasoning. They made an odd distinction between records and “official” records (no such distinction exists) and even accused us of not having the public interest at heart. Bless. In fact it’s worth reading the ‘rationale’, if you could call it that, in full:
My view is that this request has been made in order to undermine the work of FÁS and its staff and to add fuel to the ongoing media attention that FÁS have found itself in. It is reasonable to expect that FÁS staff have many views on the events that have taken place and it is also reasonable that FÁS staff should have some facility in which to air their views. This facility is the FÁS bulletin board. I do not consider it is unreasonable that such a facility be in place. Staff should be able to use this facility to express those views. The bulletin board is a very important communications tool for colleagues to assist each other with queries of a work nature in an informal environment. It provides instant access to answers that might otherwise take time, all done in an effort to provide an efficient and effective service to FÁS clients. Questions are raised and answered informally as this is the purpose of the bulletin board. It is also a communications tool for colleagues to debate issues among each other, work related and otherwise.
My opinion is that this request has not been made with the best interests of the public at heart. The rights provided by the FOI Act must not be abused by public bodies and in turn must not be abused by members of the public. I am satisfied that the request amounts to an abuse of the right of access and that it is made for a purpose other than to obtain access. In my opinion, all internal staff bulletin boards will cease to exist if it is widely known that they are available under the FOI act, an act that was set up to ensure transparency in public bodies relating to official information. I do not consider that it is necessary to show transparency in this area as the information cannot be deemed ‘official information’. There is no public interest in releasing this bulletin board. I do understand that the bulletin board might be ‘of interest’ to the public but there is a clear distinction between ‘of interest’ to the public and ‘in the public interest’ and it is very important not to confuse the two. In my opinion there is no public interest in the release of comments attributed to FÁS staff in relation to a variety of topics other than a general curiosity. The release of the comments would not assist the public in their understanding of the processes of government in any way.
The release and publication of the FÁS bulletin board would have many effects, that is to undermine the staff of the public body, to cause undue attention to FÁS and to highlight FÁS in a negative way for the amusement or entertainment of others. None of this is consistent with the ‘spirit’ of the FOI Act. I am therefore of the firm belief that this request is frivolous and vexatious.
The case was then appealed to the Information Commissioner, who thanks to a large backlog, has just issued a decision (in full below). The decision of FAS has been annulled and the Commissioner has directed the release of most of the data, bar some small exemptions. The sections of the Act tackled were Section 10 (1) (e), Section 26 (1) (a) (Information obtained in confidence) and Section 28 (Personal Information). In relation to the vexatious section, the Commissioner noted:
Helpfully, the Commissioner has provided some guidance on how purported vexatious requests should be handled:
It was found that my request was not even close to the above:
Here is the full decision: