A review: Half a billion euro

It’s been an interesting 10 months since we started this blog in late August. Firstly we would like to thank our readers for their support, especially the financial support. This support has given us a huge amount of freedom to try and open up government via FOI and along the way we have learned much about how the Act is actually used.

Our work has been cited in regional and national newspapers, as page one stories or as smaller ones, and we recently shared a byline on a front page story in the Sunday Times related to FOIs received with your help – we hope to continue this work.

Today we passed 100,000 unique visitors to the site. From looking at the logs, we can say that the vast majority of our traffic originates here in Ireland. It’s quite sizeable, and we get lots of returning visits. Thank you for your loyalty.

Up to today, you our readers, have contributed €2,845 to this project. I still have to read that twice to believe it. As of today we have expended this entirely, and have started again our own money (mainly for appeals to the Information Commissioner). As we have spent this money, we feel it only right to account for the expenditure as openly as we can, as well as give some statistics and information on where we are as of now.

Under the FOI Act we have submitted 78 requests (which includes €15 requests, €75 appeals and €150 appeals and search and retrieval fees). This has so far cost €2,313. We have submitted 22 requests for information or appeals under EIR (Access to Information on the Environment) legislation. Requests are free under the legislation but this has cost €600 (at €150 each) as we currently have four appeals with the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information. We have also recently begun publishing the accounts for State-owned companies, which cost €2.50 per document from the Companies Registration Office. All costs in relation to postage, cheque fees, postal order fees, bank draft fees, envelopes and ink, are paid for out of our own resources. And obviously we do not charge for the time we spend on this. We also have to submit several more appeals which we will fund ourselves.

Now some statistics. We use Scribd to share documents, it is a free service and is an easy win. It is not perfect – we are the first and only beta testers in Ireland of DocumentCloud, and in the future we hope to implement this for all documents. Our philosophy is that original documents have resonance, and as they are also usually public documents, the public has a right to see the originals (that we spent your money obtaining). We have published 243 documents (including some publicly available ones) that have been viewed 52,475 times, and downloaded in their original format 1,078 times. This means each document was viewed an average of 215 times, an impressive figure. We still have a large volume of hard copy documents left to scan, but we hope to do this soon.

In terms of output, we are testing one measure of transparency. We will calculate the relation of costs (€2,845) to the amount of previously undisclosed public expenditure (at least in terms of detail) that resulted from our work. We estimate that excluding the €1,931,253,085 CAP payment data (which was obtained by Farmsubsidy.org and shared with us, we published elements of that data) we have obtained in reasonable detail, and in open formats, Irish government expenditure totaling more than half a billion euro.

We will go back soon and do a more accurate calculation – the Enterprise Ireland data forms the largest part of that information at close to €400,000,000. Oireachtas data totaled about €130,000,000. This means that for every euro spent of your contributions, we published data detailing €175,000 of public expenditure. This is one measure – and we do realise some of the datasets published need further work (feel free to volunteer!).

But another measure is the information itself and the blog posts we wrote, the data we published, the documents we published so perhaps for readers who haven’t been here from the start, I should narrate some of the highlights. Here are eight things we have done.

1. Morris Tribunal/Moriarty Tribunal website and costs of transcription.

We noticed the website for the Morris Tribunal was taken down, including transcripts that had been there. Our first FOI sought a copy of the website, and all transcripts of the Tribunal, including a breakdown of costs for the website. The website was reinstated as a result of the request. The transcripts have still not been all released, and are still in closed formats. We sought Moriarty transcripts and were told they were copyrighted by a private firm and would have to pay €16,000 for all transcripts. Under pressure from myself and other journalists, the Tribunal promised to release the transcripts digitally. They have still failed to do so. We are considering various options on this specific issue.

2. NAMA and Anglo risk assessments

We sought and obtained the titles, dates and authors of all risk reports carried out by third parties in relation to NAMA and Anglo, many of the titles were previously undisclosed.

3. Oireachtas expenses data

We sought and obtained all expense claims for all Senators and TDs for 1999 to 2008. We have imported 2005 – 2008 into spreadsheets. The four year tabulation, never before published, totaled €97,637,195.65 for TDs and €27,177,074.19 for Senators. We still have to tabulate 1999 to 2004 and obtain 1998 and 2009. The project was undertaken in partnership with KildareStreet. We have an appeal with the Information Commissioner for the entire financial management system of the Oireachtas, including all expenditure.

4. Diaries

We have published ministerial diaries for multiple ministers over multiple years. We continue to seek diaries, with our initial goal of publishing all ministerial diaries for all years from 1998 onwards. We will also begin seeking other types of diaries. We also sought and published diaries of senior staff at the Department of Finance.

5. Logs

We continue to seek the FOI requests logs of all bodies. We will publish all logs in open spreadsheet formats, and plan to go back to the inception of the Act in 1998.

6. Expenses databases

We requested the expenses database of the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and were refused. We appealed it to internal review, and were refused, we then appealed to the Information Commissioner. In a settlement, the Department agreed to the release of the majority, and with our consent, the removal of certain columns in order to not activate a Section 10 (1) (c) (voluminous request) exemption. The data totaled €776,000, broken down by named civil servant and purpose of claim. We then sent simultaneous requests to FAS, the Department of Finance, the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice, for their expenses databases. We have obtained some but not all of these. The total expenditure in the released databases totals (and we haven’t calculated Foreign Affairs yet), up to €50,000,000. We have also set a marker down in terms of being able to request database exports, as oppose to elements of databases.

7. Section 19 (Cabinet records) (Section 19 does not apply after 10 years have passed)

We have published the Cabinet agendas for all Cabinet meetings from April 1998 to March 2000. These documents only became available after the expiry of the 10 year rule, after which records at Cabinet level become available. These were previously unreleased to anyone. We also sought briefing papers for Bertie Ahern for a set of Cabinet meetings, and will continue to chronologically ask for all briefing papers and Cabinet agendas. We also sought specific memoranda for Government from some meetings, including aide memoires. We are in the process of appealing a refusal to release information that was deemed commercially sensitive from 1998.

8. EIRs (Environmental Information Requests, like FOI but different)

We noticed that no one does them. We submitted requests to NAMA, Anglo Irish Bank, CIE and Coillte (among others), seeking information. NAMA and Anglo denied they were public authorities and we appealed both all the way to the Information Commissioner. CIE is also with the Information Commissioner on the basis of deemed refusal. Coillte is pending. Despite telling people about this whole other arm of right to information, few have yet recognised this valuable tool for getting information from bodies that are or are not covered by FOI.

If you want to find details of all of these requests, search through the blog, or look through the tabs across the top, everything is detailed in there. We have been working on other stuff that we have chosen to not yet publish, but we will publish at some point. This is for a variety of reasons – but trust us, we plan on publishing everything.

We also have been republishing existing material, but in more open formats. One example of this is Lottery funding, which exists on PDFs. We converted the data back to spreadsheets and listed as much recipients of lottery money as we could find for 2008 – €197,000,000. We still have to find another €80 million of recipients. And then go back year by year. (If we included the FOI and CAP totals, the Lottery data would bring our total to €2.7 billion, by two people on a budget of under €3,000)

If you like the work we do, and what to continue seeing the results of that work – please feel free to contribute via the Paypal donate button (in the column to your right, or on the Donate tab above). Clearly if we have no money, the volume of requests we can send will fall, as we cannot finance this entirely ourselves. We will do our best, but can only do so much with our own resources.

We sincerely want to thank everyone for joining with us on this experiment in transparency advocacy and online journalism. We hope to continue to bring you more stories that matter.

7 thoughts on “A review: Half a billion euro”

  1. I’d like to see more on Quangos – cui bono – what do they spend their money on. We see from FAS that a small number of beneficiaries, eh, benefitted disproportionally. Do they crop up across the other quangos? And that sort of stuff.

  2. At some point in the future, there will be statues in O’Connell Street of you two guys in recognition of your work making this ‘democracy’ a real democracy.

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