Some time ago I sent an FOI request to FAS seeking the following:
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.
I received 1) some time ago, and it contained documents I already had. Part 2 relates to earlier posts, where we identified the existence of an internal bulletin board due to referral traffic from it, to this blog. Senator Shane Ross wrote about this a while back, where apparently we tried to “gain access”. We did not try anything as underhand as attempting to hack into FAS – but we did then seek the bulletin board via the FOI Act. Parts 2 and 3 have been refused under Section 10 (1) (e), as a frivolous or vexatious request. We believe this is without merit, and will be appealing.
According to Mr Ross:
FAS house rules decreed that the internet-based board should not be the target of “abusive, sexually-oriented, obscene, illegal, defamatory, hateful, or harassing items that invade people’s privacy”.
It seems that tensions had been running so high at FAS that the rules were being breached by the bucketful. Staff morale has plunged after the barrage of revelations at the agency. The internet board had become a treasure trove for messages of abuse.
Some senior staff recognised themselves in some of the anonymous messages, even if they were not named. They freaked out and made formal complaints.
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.
An all-time first for FAS.
Sources at FAS say the site was used as a tool to snipe at those who had been promoted and was an outlet for jealousies.
The suggestion box was originally meant as a place where employees could post constructive proposals. So the bulletin board had, er . . . plenty of potential.
Now the staff will be unable to comment on last week’s revelations that the €7.8m spent on the now-abandoned space programme in Florida had no tangible benefits for any trainees. The top staff alone enjoyed first-class travel.
Staff who want to reveal any more FAS secrets can always write anonymously to the Sunday Independent business pages. They’ve been doing it for years.
The rationale for refusal is, in my opinion, without foundation. This is the rationale given by the Deciding Officer:
I have considered this section and its application in great detail as this section is not one to be considered or applied lightly. 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.
I am also applying Section 28 1 (a) Personal Information. Personal information is defined in the act as information about an identifiable individual that—
( a ) would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to the individual or members of the family, or friends, of the individual, or
( b ) is held by a public body on the understanding that it would be treated by it as confidential,
I consider that entries to the FÁS bulletin board are personal to the staff of FÁS. This is not a bulletin board that is available on the internet. It is an informal communications tool with limited circulation to the staff of FÁS. All staff understood that a limited number of people read the bulletin board and that people in the same public body, i.e. FÁS, read the bulletin board. Staff are of the understanding that only colleagues are among the people entitled to view the entries. I consider that Section 28 1 (a) can include colleagues due to the informal nature of the bulletin board. In my view Section 28 1 (b) also applies as staff would have understood when using the bulletin board, that FÁS would treat the bulletin board and its content as confidential information on their behalf. They understood that FÁS would not release their name to other bulletin board authors or to management. They understood that they had to abide by the FÁS policy on bulletin board usage. At no stage did they envisage that their comments would be circulated in the wider public domain.
I’m unsure as to how a bulletin board that is reported to be anonymous can contain personal information. The Section 10 (1) (e) exemption is very rarely used, and in this case I believe poorly executed. I will write as to why in a future post. The Deciding Officer is making a number of charges against myself and about my motives in seeking the bulletin board. I
refute deny entirely the accusations made. In no way am I ‘abusing’ the FOI Act. I will draft an appeal, and publish it here shortly.
In relation to the databases of expenses, FAS have released expense claims covering the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, totaling €24.7 million, in over 200,000 rows. I will publish these in the next post.