University College Dublin (UCD) was one of five public bodies which were investigated for compliance to Freedom of Information (FOI) regulations by the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) for the year 2019. The report found that UCD “has not managed to issue original decisions on time in a significant proportion of cases”.
The Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall, said that he investigated UCD, along with 3 other agencies as they came to his office’s attention in 2018 “in relation to deemed refusals”. In his office’s FOI Compliance report, Tyndall explained that UCD FOI was late to issue decisions in “a significant proportion of cases”.
The Information Commissioner reviewed 10 requests made to UCD during 2019. The review found that UCD was late to issue decisions 40% of the time, UCD was late to issue internal review decisions and that the University acknowledged all bar one request on time. The College Tribune reviewed requests made by our staff and other members of the UCD community and found that 47% of our requests and 41% of external requests had decisions issued outside of the statutory timeframes.
UCD was commended in the report for the “high level of FOI awareness” across the University and for recognising the importance of the process at “Senior Management level within the University”.
In the 2019 FOI Compliance report, the Information Commissioner stated that “under-resourcing of the FOI Office has been an issue” and that “resource needs in respect of the FOI function should be evaluated”. Mr. Tyndall also noted that a new full-time assistant was added to the UCD office in 2019.
The OIC recommended that UCD should start tracking and increase compliance with statutory timeframes, to only apply the 28-day extension period for the reasons specified by law and to ensure that all new staff receive “appropriate FOI training”. The full recommendations made by the Information Commissioner may be viewed here.
When asked about these recommendations, UCD’s Information Compliance Manager, Debbie Scanlan, stated: “We can confirm that there has been an increase in the staffing levels of the Records Management and Freedom of Information Unit” and “in recent years, the University has received record numbers of FOI requests, many of which have been of an increasingly complex nature.”
Scanlan continued: “The University takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 very seriously” and “the University endeavours to respond to each FOI request received in as timely and professional manner as possible”. UCD have confirmed that the recommendations made by the OIC are “currently being addressed by the University.”
Freedom of What?
Almost all public bodies are required to give records and documents if requested by an Irish resident under the Freedom of Information Act of 2014. The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2014 in order to lift the “veil of secrecy for the first time allowing information relating to the governing of the State to be made available to the public” according to the government’s website on the FOI Process.
When a public body receives a Freedom Of Information request they must issue a decision on whether or not to release the requested records within 28 days. However, if the request is deemed to be too long or complex to be collected within the first month, that public body may extend the collection period by an additional 28 days. If the public body, in this case, UCD, doesn’t issue a decision by this date then this request is considered to be late.
The public body may refuse to grant information for many reasons, including commercial sensitivity or if releasing the information could harm public safety. The full list of reasons, along with the full act, are available here. Should the person making the request disagree with, or fail to have a decision communicated to them within the mandated timeframes, they may request an internal review. Further issues can be appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner.
A Habit of Extensions
The College Tribune sought to independently review whether these statistics were representative of the requests made to UCD under the FOI Act. To do so, The College Tribune reached out to the University Observer, former members of the UCD Students’ Union, students of UCD and external journalists to gather information as to whether the Information Commissioner’s investigation was accurate to the experience of those who interact with the office on a regular basis.
In order to protect each of these sources, the Tribune has anonymised and combined the data received from each source. The College Tribune made 19 FOI requests from June of 2019 to June 2020. In 10 of these cases, UCD FOI issued a decision within the statutory time frames. However, response times varied widely, from 16 days to 4 months and counting. UCD FOI was late to issue a decision within the statutory 56-day timeframe on 9 occasions, or 47% of the time. The first 28-day extension was applied in 89% of these requests.
Having reached out to a number of other bodies, The College Tribune can show that the experience of other UCD based institutions is in-line with our own. Of the 17 requests which we received reliable data for, 10 were received on-time, with 7 (41%) received after the statutory timeframes had elapsed.
Hugh Dooley – Deputy News Editor