777 days and waiting … OFMDFM in no hurry to answer FOIs

Northern Ireland’s Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) record on Freedom of Information turns out to be a lot worse than the public have been aware of – with one request still unanswered after 777 days.

The Department hit the headlines last July when a requester was made wait 320 days for a reply. But figures just disclosed under FOI show the real picture is far worse, with five requests from 2011 still without a proper response and a further three which went without a reply for over two years.

The longest outstanding request is one from March 2011, a media enquiry about ‘Expenditure for Account Codes 2009/10’, which so far is lying unanswered for 26 months – a whopping total of 777 days. Another media enquiry, on credit card expenditure, is waiting for a response since July 2011 (674 days). A public request for titles of departmental files should have been answered 638 days ago, and media requests about ‘Correspondence between First Minister & named individual’ (594 days) and ministerial drivers (586 days) are also unanswered.

Among the ten which took more than a year – mostly answered within the last few weeks – were ones on Appointment of Consultant / NI Water Review Team (763 days), NI Travel Expenses (721 days), Properties outside Northern Ireland (742 days), and Ministerial Briefs (638 days). There were also three requests about Special Advisors, two of which were from a public representative.

In total, there were 97 requests in 2011 alone which were not answered in time. There is of course no guarantee that the responses, once provided, were adequate. Yet some of these ought in principle have been easy to respond to quickly, even with a refusal.

These new revelations will increase concerns that the Department, which was the subject of one fifth of all complaints to the Information Commissioner about Northern Ireland government departments, and which has been monitored by the Commissioner’s Office over its poor performance in responding, is failing to take Freedom of Information seriously.

Speaking to the Northern Ireland Assembly last year, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness insisted that his department ‘compares favourably with that of other jurisdictions’. With the Commissioner’s monitoring report due any day now, transparency advocates will be watching with great concern to see whether the OFMDFM shows any signs of a real commitment to change.

OFMDFM Late Responses (Text)
Most of this information is available in the Department’s response to a Freedom of Information request at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.