The cost of Freedom of Information?

We often hear about the cost of Freedom of Information, the large burden it places on public bodies, and the small armies of civil servants who struggle to deal with nuisance requests from pesky reporters.

What we hear less about – because media often will not trumpet the work of other media – is the money that has been saved directly as a result of FOI requests.

This is a working list of stories where money was paid back or spending cut after newspaper or broadcast journalism, all of which were based on documents released under Freedom of Information. I first put it together for the NUJ for an Oireachtas hearing a few years back and have added a couple of updates since.

I want to make the list current and thorough, so if anybody can think of other examples that might fall into this category – contact me on Twitter or email me and I will add them.

The direct savings that result from FOI are really only a small part of the picture.

Sometimes, FOI does not result in saving money at all, instead exposing waste or illegal conduct after it has already happened. That at least has the effect of making it less likely to happen again.

More important again is the fact that state bodies and government departments almost always make decisions with Freedom of Information at the forefront of their minds.

The potential FOI request that is looming further down the line hangs over all government spending and decisions.

It also offers a very useful way in which civil servants – fearful of speaking publicly – can put on paper concerns they hope will eventually get picked up.

The value of all that is incalculable.

That’s why you should support projects like www.righttoknow.ie, set up by Gavin Sheridan and Fred Logue. It is dedicated to the pursuit of transparency, FOI and investigative journalism and will help take on cases that normal media or freelance journalists might not be able to.

Here are a list of stories where money was repaid or where clear savings resulted from Freedom of Information requests by Irish reporters.

  • Repayment of more than €3,000 in telephone costs for phone calls made by former TD Michelle Mulherin to Kenya following a series of stories by the Irish Mail on Sunday, RTÉ Investigations Unit and the Sunday Times. Read the story
  • Refund of €2,000 by Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar after an FOI discovered that he had twice claimed mileage at the higher allowable rate in a single year following article in the Sunday Times. Read the story
  • A 10% reduction in claims for mileage by Ministers in 2012 following revelations in Irish the Mail on Sunday that then Minister Ruairi Quinn was being paid expenses for driving to and from his holiday home in Co Galway. Read the background
  • The closure of the FAS Science Challenge programme following exposé of expenditure in the Sunday Independent by Nick Webb and Shane Ross. It had been costing at least €1.2 million a year. Read the background
  • A new political expenses system introduced in March 2010 following resignation of Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue, which has saved close to €2 million annually. Projected out-turn for expenses in 2012 (first full year of new system) was €11.84 million compared to €13.72 million for 2009, the last full year under the old regime. This came about following a long series of articles in the sadly-departed Sunday Tribune and other newspapers.
  • Former TD Ivor Callely asked to hand back €6,000 after it was found that his mileage claims had been miscalculated when he served as a Junior Minister. This followed FoI request by the Sunday Tribune, which uncovered the payment. Read the background to it.
  • The expenditure of the Office of President at Waterford IT was reduced by over €150,000 annually following a series of FoI requests first reported on by the Sunday Independent. Read the background
  • Refund of €2,600 by TD Michael-Healy Rae following hundreds of phone calls to a reality TV show that he had appeared on, as reported on originally by the Irish Daily Mail. Some background here.
  • Spending of around €105,000 per annum on secretarial assistance and mobile phones for former Taoisigh ended following a series of stories based on FoI material in the Sunday Times.
  • Mahon Tribunal legal team ran up a bill of over €44,000 on lunches and more on water, taxis etc over ten years up to 2009. Following story in Sunday Times, the Department of the Taoiseach disallowed any such future claims.
  • A HSE employee was found to be the highest travel and expense claimant in the organisation, paid €37,000 in a single year. He resigned from the HSE following an internal audit, which discovered he was double charging by using a HSE fuel card at the same time as claiming expenses, according to the Sunday Times.
  • Bonus of €37,750 paid out to chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland was repaid following a series of newspaper articles in the Irish Examiner. Report here
  • Series of articles documenting expense claims at Irish National Stud in Irish Examiner and Irish Times highlighted €85,000 of expenditure on flights and chauffeurs. The organisation’s new chief executive told the Dail: ‘We will be careful about the style of the expenses and see they pass muster and inspection and do not offend. That is the standard we must set.’ Conor Ryan of RTÉ Investigations Unit wrote a book covering this and other stories.
  • The salary of the chief executive of Coillte was reduced by more than €40,000 following government pressure and a series of articles in the Irish Examiner. The chief executive also declined to take a bonus in 2010 after adverse coverage of a similar payment in 2008.
  • Number of staff employed by Ceann Comhairle’s office under John O’Donoghue rose from 3 to 10. His successor Seamus Kirk reduced the number of people working there back to 3, saving €300,000 annually, and following revelations by the Sunday Tribune. Alas, Sunday Tribune articles from the time are no longer available online.
  • Ministerial travel in 2007 to coincide with the annual St Patrick’s Day festivities exceeded €500,000. In 2012, the figure was €53,142 brought about primarily by a series of articles by many newspapers relating to such profligate expenditure.
  • And last but definitely not least, a series of FOIs surrounding the escalating cost of the so-called ‘Bertie Bowl’ national stadium ended with the €1 billion project being cancelled.

As said already, I would like to make this list as complete as possible so any suggestions, feel free to pass on.

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