[Crossposted to thestory.ie]
Readers may recall a blog post I wrote back in December detailing my dealings with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (DAST). After gleaning information from the footers of Ken Foxe’s FOIs concerning John O’Donoghue, I established that the Department was using Oracle iExpense software to store expenses information.
I wrote an FOI request in October asking for a ‘datadump’, of the entire database since inception (in other words, a copy of the database). The Department refused both the original request and the appeal for internal review (conducted by a more senior official in the Department).
In January I appealed the decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner. The request, internal review and appeal have cost a combined €240 (kindly made available by you, the public).
The Appeal letter to the Information Commissioner
Today I am pleased to say that I have reached a settlement with the Department, brokered by the Office of the Information Commissioner. The Department have agreed to release almost the entire database, with some elements removed. This is not a formal decision of the Commissioner, but is instead a settling of the issue. This just means that a formal OIC Decision was not required as the two parties reached an agreement.
The settlement is this: the entire expenses database of the Department, to include the follow expenses data headings:
Description, Grade, Full Name, Claim, Date, Purpose, Status, Total Claimed, Distribution Line Number, Start Date, Expense Type, Euro Line Amount, Currency Code, Currency Rate, Amount Quantity Unit, Rate Net Total, (EUR) Payment Date, Withholding Amount Invoice, Amount, Amount Paid.
Cost Centre numbers, employee cost centre numbers, named approvers and justification fields have been removed. There are also some removals from other fields which is either considered personal information or information obtained in confidence. These removals do not mean the information is redacted per se, it just means that in order to get the data, I agreed to remove certain columns in order to expedite the process. It does not preclude me from seeking the justification field, for example, in the future.
The data contains €774,882.29 of expense claims by named civil servants over a five year period (2005 to 2009 inclusive). The amount involved might appear relatively small, but it is the quality of the data that is more significant.
I cannot overstate the importance of the release of this data, and there are a number of reasons why this is the case.
Firstly, it sets an important precedent in terms of what information can be obtained from public bodies. In their refusals to release this data, the Department cited three sections of the Act which they felt exempted them from releasing it. The OIC felt differently. While not a formal decision of the OIC, a settlement was justified in this case as the Department were amenable to releasing the majority of the data sought. Decisions can take far longer to get (up to two years), so I felt that on balance the offered information in the settlement was acceptable.
Second, are the broader implications.
Following this settlement with DAST, I have started the process of requesting similar expenses data from the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Community Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Defence, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform, the Courts Service, the Industrial Development Authority, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government, the Department of Finance, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Transport, the Health Service Executive, the Revenue Commissioners, FÁS and Enterprise Ireland.
I believe the combined expenses data for these (and other) bodies will run to tens, if not hundreds of millions of euro.
But perhaps most critical is this: I sought the data not as a journalist looking for a scoop, not as a member of the public with an axe to grind, but as a transparency advocate only interested in the public interest. By publishing this, and coming data, I believe the public is served by a more open and accountable State – where data related to how some public monies are spent is no longer hidden, but is in full view. Transparency keeps the system honest.
I should also make clear that publishing this data is not an attempt to embarrass any one person, nor does it form the basis of any claim that somehow there was something unjustified about any expense claimed by civil servants. It is simply an exercise in transparency, and no more.
And I will leave readers with one question.
If I am getting this data and intend publishing it in its entirety online for the public to see, what is stopping the Government from doing the same, proactively, without question, and as a matter of course?
In the end, sunlight benefits us all.
The dataset, presented as is (and containing some macros):
Department of Arts, Sport & Tourism expenses database