Briefings for Ger Deering on appointment as Information Commissioner and Commissioner for Environmental Information

The Information Commissioner was told government departments and public bodies were failing to resource Freedom of Information (FOI) properly and that public servants were not being given enough training to make good quality decisions.

A briefing for the recently appointed Information Commissioner Ger Deering said that public bodies had consistently failed to allocate enough resources to adequately fund FOI.

It also highlighted the failure of public bodies to make sure those tasked with making decisions had enough access to training, support, and expertise.

The analysis stands in stark contrast to comments made by Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath who has repeatedly claimed FOI is “robust and functioning well”.

The briefing – which was prepared late last year by officials – paints a somewhat bleak picture of information access in Ireland saying the Information Commissioner needed to do more to ensure public bodies dedicated adequate resources to FOI.

It said: “[We have] had very few interactions in recent years with heads of [public] bodies who might need some encouragement to make such commitments and it is an area in which we should do more.”

The briefing said FOI decision making was almost always “tagged on as an additional function” to civil servants who had other jobs.

And it said that FOI officers tended to be replaced quite regularly, thus “continuing the cycle of inexperienced decision makers making decisions”.

The Information Commissioner had themselves recruited somebody to develop an outreach programme to help public bodies whose decision making they considered “deficient”. However, this person had left their post with significant delays in filling the vacancy.

“As such, we have undertaken very little outreach work since May 2021,” said the briefing, “which we are keen to restart.”

The Information Commissioner (OIC) said they had their own difficulties in keeping staff with many of their senior staff taking advantage of a “mobility scheme” to move elsewhere in the public service.

The briefing explained: “OIC is experiencing higher staff turnover and are facing lengthy delays in having vacancies filled. The problems are more acute for the OIC, given the specific skills set we believe to be necessary for high calibre case workers.

“OIC has lost significant expertise in recent years, and it has a relatively inexperienced team overall. This is not helpful in circumstances where demand for our services has been increasing.”

The new Information Commissioner was also told of the “significant resource implications” of FOI decisions being appealed to court in terms of time and costs.

They said this influenced their approach to “engagement with parties to a review” and the level of detail they provided in their decisions.

The briefing concluded: “It remains an ongoing concern.”

A separate briefing for Ger Deering on FOI’s sister system for requesting records, the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations, detailed how cases in that area had doubled in the space of three years.

It said that the current environmental and housing crises meant this would continue and explained how negative findings had been made against Ireland on how it dealt with such requests by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee.

A slideshow presentation said that in one year 19% of cases they received were ending up in the High Court, but that this had brought “clarity to the law” and a subsequent fall-off in court appeals.

A spokesman for the Information Commissioner said that since the briefing was drafted in November last year, they had been able to recruit three additional staff.

He said: “In addition, existing staff have continued to further develop the skills and knowledge required to carry out their roles.”

The spokesman said that the newly appointed commissioner Ger Deering planned to engage with public bodies and raise all the issues highlighted in the briefing, including the lack of resources and training for information access.