Good morning everyone.
I was delighted to be invited to speak to you here today on the theme of how freedom of information is a key enabler of political reform.
Since its introduction it has constituted a significant change in the culture of the Irish administration given that it can be used to hold the government bureaucracy and Ministers accountable for their behaviour and public policy-making decisions.
Speaking of public policy-making, I am conscious that just yesterday a significant
policy event took place with the triggering by the UK of Article 50 and the beginning of the formal process to leave the EU.
I have no doubt that the approach of the Government and public bodies to preparing for and engaging with the process around Brexit will be the focus of much attention – and might even lead to an FOI request or two!
But I can certainly state that the Government is under no illusion about the nature and scale of the challenge.
How we deal with Brexit will define the future of our island for decades to come.
But our priorities are clear and we have a plan.
My plan right now, though, is to discuss FOI – there will be plenty of discussion on Brexit at other times and in other fora.
TRUST AND REFORM
Personally, I feel that FOI has made a real, tangible, contribution to the work this Government has been doing in the area of reform.
The Act has certainly been used to good effect, particularly by the media, to uncover cases of maladministration and poor governance.
As such FOI plays an important role in delivering open, accountable and ethical government and in rebuilding public trust.
The economic crisis in recent years has had an impact on public trust and confidence in public administration.
The Public Sector Trends Report 2016, recently published by the Institute of Public Administration included the findings that Ireland remains sixth in the EU28 in upholding public service values.
However, while levels of trust continue to remain low, the position has improved across most of the indicators in 2016 – notably in that “Trust in Government” has slowly increased since 2013, with 28% now saying they tended to trust the Government, just above the EU average of 27%.
Part of this increase is I hope down to the fact that, in addition to the work of the Government in seeking to ensure economic recovery, a very substantial programme of legislative reforms has been and continues to be delivered.
In addition to FOI, significant reforms have been implemented in areas such as Oireachtas Inquires, Protected Disclosures, Lobbying, and the scope and powers of the Ombudsman.
Furthermore, the Public Sector Standards Bill is currently progressing through the Oireachtas and drafting of a Data Sharing and Governance Bill is well underway.
Other achievements include the development of a Corporate Governance Standard for the Civil Service, the introduction of an open and transparent system for State Boards Appointments, and the Open Data Initiative which involves the publication of official non-personal data in open format so that potential economic and social benefits may be realised.
We are also participating in the multi-lateral Open Government Partnership initiative to promote transparency and strengthen governance.
It might interest you to know that Ireland has ranked very highly in a report published by the European Portal on how European countries have developed their Open Data Maturity since 2015 and scored overall third place in terms of Open Data Maturity Assessment across the 28 European Union countries assessed, which is a terrific achievement.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 2014
Specifically on Freedom of Information, in past reports, the Information Commissioner has detailed some of the very significant achievements of the Act over the years and highlighted areas of public policy where FOI was instrumental in bringing vital issues of public concern into the public domain.
Indeed one of the most often highlighted benefits of FOI is its role in helping to improve the contestability of policy advice and the degree to which policy advice is fully informed and evidence-based.
I think it is valuable that people realise the level of consideration and debate that goes into the process of policy-making.
Developing the Act provided an excellent opportunity to plot the course for the future growth and further deepening of a positive culture for FOI.
The fundamental purpose of FOI is summarised in the long title of the Act as follows:-
“to enable members of the public to obtain access to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy to information in the possession of public bodies”
This precisely expresses the high level of ambition we should hold for FOI and is what we aimed to do in the Act.
It established a modernised, consolidated, restructured and more accessible FOI framework.
Two key features are that it restored the Act to its 1997 origins and it extended FOI to almost all public bodies.
As new public bodies are established, they will automatically be subject to FOI, unless specifically exempted and the scope of the Act now covers some 600 public bodies.
This means that a much wider portion of the public service has come under FOI and has allowed for increased examination of how public bodies are operating.
Earlier, I alluded to the ability of FOI to provide an insight into public policy-making – “a look behind the curtain” perhaps, and certainly it seems that many of the investigations and stories revealed through our media are accompanied by the phrase “released under freedom of information”.
The Act also included a key innovation relating to the publication of information without the need for FOI requests.
A Model Publication Scheme along with guidance has been developed which commits bodies to make information about their organisations and their operations publicly available as part of their normal business activities.
Encouraging public bodies to build on this innovation and look at ways of publishing more information in a regular fashion should be an aim in future years.
This will not only increase the information made available to the public but should result in a reduced level of actual requests.
CHALLENGES AND SUPPORTS
I mention the issue of a reduced level of requests because the implementation of FOI is not without its challenges for public bodies.
The broadening of the scope to cover more bodies, the option to make requests via email and the elimination of an up-front fee have been viewed as the primary drivers of the increase in requests – the overall number of requests is now at around 30,000 a year, a trebling in ten years.
This has meant that the bodies, particularly those brought into the scope since 2014, must come to terms with operating under the revised system and become familiar with dealing with requests.
Given the relatively small size of some bodies and sometimes infrequency of requests many new bodies may still be coming to grips with the complexities of the legislation, with the challenging timelines for complying with the various provisions and with the increased resource implications.
The Office of the Information Commissioner is also represented here this morning and Roisín Connolly will be setting out its view on best practice by bodies but also areas for improvement.
You will also get the perspective of other stakeholders, including requestors, on their experiences with the process
But certainly I can reassure you that my Department will continue to focus on providing supports and guidance to help FOI bodies deal with requests appropriately and efficiently.
Among the supports provided to date is a Code of Practice, developed to promote best practice among public bodies as well as manuals, guidance notes, an active helpdesk and sample letters.
However, we must always be cognisant of changes in other areas which could impact on the operation of FOI – a notable one being the coming into effect of the EU General Data Protection Regulation next year.
I will be considering the new requirements under the regulation which will be required to ensure that the FOI and Data Protection Systems can operate effectively in parallel.
Events such as this conference play an important role in increasing understanding and learning from our experiences of FOI.
In one of his many quotable quotes, Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister remarks, when talking against open government, that “ignorance has a certain dignity”.
He also says that “”under consideration” means “we’ve lost the file”; “under active consideration” means “we’re trying to find it”.
I assure you that I disagree with Sir Humphrey on all counts!
I am sure that the speakers today and the resultant discussions will demonstrate how FOI is helping us achieve a more open, transparent and accountable system of public administration – not for its own sake – but for the benefits it can bring to all our citizens.
Thank you for listening, and thanks to Public Affairs Ireland for the invitation to speak on this issue.
I wish you all a productive and interesting conference.