One of the most significant last-minute amendments to the FOI Bill 2013 is charging multiple times for what are known as multi-part or “multifaceted” requests.
What is a multi-faceted request?
This blog has used multifaceted requests in order to maximise the amount of information that can be obtained for the unjustifiable €15 charge. We have also demonstrated that technique to dozens of journalists in most of the national papers in Ireland and journalists working for RTE and TV3 over the past 3 years. Partly because of this activity, FOI officers began expressing concern at the number of new multi-faceted requests they were receiving.
An example of a multifaceted request which I did earlier this year to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was:
1) All papers prepared for and used at an Oireachtas committee meeting on January 10, 2013.
2) The appointments diary of the Secretary General of the Department since inception.
3) All communications or circulars issued to FOI officers in 2012. This should include minutes or records relating to any meeting involving three or more FOI officers in the possession of the Department, for 2011 and 2012.
4) A datadump, copy/export of, all expenses claimed by all staff as per the JD Edwards database in use by the Department, since inception. I request this data be released in an open, accessible format – CSV/XLS/XLSX.
5) A datadump of all Purchase Orders of any amount by the Department. I am aware that POs of €20,000 or above are on your website, however I am seeking POs of €19,999 or below.
Under the current regime this request cost €15 upfront – before you get to search and retrieval. Under the new costs regime it will cost upwards of €75, depending on how many divisions the request is split into. Let’s round it down to a 5 part request going to 4 divisions – €60. Or 4 times the current cost.
Did charging for multifaceted requests appear in the draft heads or the main Bill when published?
No. Nowhere. It didn’t come up in any of the much vaunted pre-legislative scrutiny (and as David Farrell points out, this makes a mockery of pre-legislative processes). It didn’t appear in the draft heads last year. It didn’t appear in the FOI Bill 2013 published earlier this year. It was put into a list of amendments at the very end of the legislative process.
As we have pointed out, cynics might suggest this is an attempt to get stuff people won’t like in at the last minute. We are cynics. The reason we are is that we know multifaceted requests were becoming an issue of concern to FOI officers as far back as July 2012. How do we know? We FOId it.
This email sent in July 2012 from DPER to a list of FOI officers in all the main line departments asks them to fill in a survey to see how the growth of multifaceted requests was “causing difficulties”.
So it was clear in Summer 2012 that the Department drafting the legislation was a) aware of the growth of multifaceted requests and b) wanted to find out from FOI officers how many they were getting. They got the results of the survey, but the charging for multifaceted requests never made it into the draft FOI bill later that summer. Nor did it make it into the main bill published earlier this year.
It arrived last week, out of the blue. And the solution to solve this multifaceted request problem was clear: charge for everything.
But aren’t multifaceted requests a strain on resources for public bodies?
When we started this blog we stated that since we were using the donations of the public to fund our FOI requests, we must seek maximum return for each €15 request. To do so we ensured that all requests were multifaceted.
If there was no €15 fee, we would not be doing multifaceted requests – we simply wouldn’t need to. The strain on resources is caused by the €15 fee, not by over zealous requesters.
What’s the solution?
Remove the fees.