Four weeks ago I sought what I believed to be reasonably standard information from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation (DETI). Among the things I sought were:
The appointments diary of the Minister for 2008 and 2009.
All speaking/talking points prepared for the Minister from January 2009 to July 2010, inclusive.
The FOI requests log for the Department from January 2007 to July 2010 inclusive. This should include the requestor, what was requested, the date of the request, and any other information recorded.
An export of the expenses database of the Department. I understand the Department uses Oracle iExpense to record expenses data.
I often ask many Departments for similar information, so I have some understanding of how these records are held, and the amount of work involved in releasing them. I have sent almost identical requests to other Departments, and been charged little or no search and retrieval fees (under the Act, a public body can charge €20.95 an hour to find and retrieve stuff). But never before have I received a fee request as big as this one from DETI:
A record for thestory.ie.
This was broken down as follows, for each part in turn:
1) 1 Staff, 10 Hours, €209.50
2) 45 Staff, 1,310 Hours, €27,444.50
3) 1 Staff, 7 Hours, €146.65
4) 4 Staff, 64 Hours, €1,340.80
So to be clear, let’s take each of these in turn.
1) The Department believes it would take one staff member 10 hours to print out or photocopy the appointments diary of the minister over two years. We believe this diary is held electronically, so they are saying it would take one staff member 10 hours to click “print”. Even if it was held in hard copy, it does not take 10 hours to photocopy (most Ministerial diaries are well under 150 pages per year). The Department cannot charge for the time it takes to redact information. As readers are aware, we have ministerial diaries from other departments covering many years, we have never been charged for these.
2) The Department claims that: “These records are maintained by individual Business Units in the Department who are responsible for preparing the notes in question for the Minister. As you can appreciate, the remit of this Department is so wide and covers so many areas, that the retrieval of speaking/talking points for the Minister for the 19-month period covered by your request would involve the examination of over 900 files, containing several thousand records.”
However we have previously been issued with speaking notes for one media appearance that was collated into one document, and given a heading. We will explore this further. But we do have in mind that most if not all documents are stored electronically.
3) Most Departments hold their FOI requests log in the form of a spreadsheet. So again, I’m being charged €146.65 for clicking “print”. If it’s not a spreadsheet then it’s a hard copy containing the name of the requestor, the date of the request, what was requested and sometimes other information. At most, such a log would contain a few dozen pages. Again, charging €146.65 for this information is nothing short of ludicrous. How it would take one staff member nearly a fully working day to perform this task is beyond me.
4) I’ve been down this road with other public bodies. Exporting a database actually requires no search and retrieval time whatever. It is simply a matter of exporting the data to a spreadsheet. Any other requests seeking Oracle data has not incurred a charge from any other Department. How it would take four staff 64 hours to export from a database is again beyond me, especially given the fact that such processes are automated.
A reader I met recently didn’t realise just how much time and resources it takes to get information out of public bodies. This is only one example. I will be contacting the Department to either clarify my position, or appeal for internal review on the fee alone. And even if my €75 appeal is successful, I don’t get the €75 back. That’s fair, isn’t it?