Case number: 150282
On 12 March 2015, the applicant requested the following records from the Department:
- All raw data collected by/received by the Department / the Office of Government Procurement in relation to expenditure covering the year 2013. This data was collected for the purposes of the 'Public Service Spend and Tendering Analysis for 2013' report.
- The results (i.e. the row-by-row expenditure data) of the cleaning/re-categorisation of the raw data into the €2.742 billion across 35,827 suppliers.
On 26 March 2015, the Department informed the applicant that it was refusing the request under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act on the ground that granting the request would require the retrieval and examination of such number of records as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of its work. However, in accordance with the provisions of section 15(4), it invited the applicant to refine his request. Following further exchanges on the matter, both parties agreed, on 27 May 2015, to a refined request for access to six fields of data for 5000 aggregated suppliers making up the majority of the spend in the 2013 report. The fields in question for each supplier were as follows:
Public service body
OGP supplier classification
However, on 1 July 2015, the Department informed the applicant that it was offering an alternative dataset with data for only four of the six previously agreed fields. It stated that the testing involved to check data for the refined request remained too voluminous. While the applicant accepted the information prepared to date, he also indicated that he was not satisfied that it satisfactorily addressed his request. On 22 July 2015, the Department formally decided to refuse the original request and to part-grant the refined request under section 15(1)(c). On 23 July 2015, the applicant sought an internal review of the Department's decision. On 25 August 2015, the Department affirmed its decision. The applicant sought a review by this Office of the Department's decision on 1 September 2015.
On 17 November 2015, Simon Noone, Investigator, informed the applicant that he intended to recommend that the Department's decision should be affirmed, and he invited the applicant to withdraw his application or to furnish further submissions in favour of his position. No response was received to this email within the time-frame indicated, and therefore I have decided to conclude this review by way of a formal binding decision. In concluding this review, I have had regard to the correspondence between the applicant and the Department and to the submissions of the parties.
In his submissions to this Office, the applicant indicated that he was seeking the entirety of the records originally requested by him on 12 March 2015. However, he further indicated that he would be happy to reach a settlement, if possible, and he referred to the refined request that he had agreed on 27 May 2015.
While the Department's decision of 22 July 2015 addressed both the original request and the refined request, I am satisfied that the scope of this review does not extend to a consideration of the original request. As I see it, the applicant agreed to refine his request and the Department agreed to consider that refined request. In considering the refined request, the Department indicated that it remained too voluminous and offered a reduced range of data. The applicant did not accept that the reduced range addressed his refined request so the Department formally decided to refuse the refined request in part. Accordingly, I am satisfied that I should limit my considerations to the Department's decision in respect of the refined request. Therefore, this review is concerned with whether or not the Department was justified, under section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act, in its decision to partially refuse access to the applicant's request for six fields of data for 5000 aggregated suppliers making up the majority of the spend in the 2013 report.
Section 15(1)(c) of the FOI Act permits an FOI body to refuse a request for records where granting the request would, by reason of the number or nature of the records concerned or the nature of the information concerned, require the retrieval and examination of such number of records or an examination of such kind of the records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of work (including disruption of work in a particular functional area) of the FOI body concerned.
In its submissions to this Office, the Department outlined the background to the 2013 analysis of expenditure report as follows.
Detailed expenditure data was sought from 64 public service bodies (PSBs) containing thousands of account codes relating to 3.8 million payment transactions. In addition to paying suppliers, financial systems are commonly used for personal non-salary payments such as travel expenses, claim settlement payments, recoupment of education fees etc. and while the expenditure data requested was to exclude all non-procurable spend, the payment data received was not audited for these exclusions as the purpose was to aggregate the data for analysis and exclude where expenditure categorisation was not possible. The raw data supplied by each PSB consisted of three files, namely supplier, payment transactions, and chart of account codes.
The Office of Government Procurement (OGP) loaded the raw data into a data staging area on a SQL server database. Here, the PSB data files were amalgamated and the resulting rows mapped, based on the chart of the PSB's account code descriptors, to OGP spend categories. Transactions that could not be mapped to a spend category were designated as unaddressable. Prior to export to the Excel database, spend was tagged, based on the PSB, as belonging to the Health, Education, Local Government, or Justice sectors. This staging area contains some of the data in the refined request, namely PSB, supplier name (raw supplier data per payment transaction), Amount (spend per transaction), and OGP category.
Once mapped to category and sector, the data was then exported to Excel where it was aggregated by category and classified, where possible, as an SME or a large company and by location (Republic of Ireland or Rest of World), using external sources. This Excel output also contains some of the data requested albeit at an aggregate level rather than by individual rows, namely supplier name (at an aggregated level), country, amount (aggregate spend per category), OGP category, and OGP supplier classification (at an aggregate level). The record that was created in response to the refined request was a partial grant of the request. The term "SOLETRADER" was used where a supplier name was that of an individual and it could not be confirmed by OGP that the individual was a service provider. Following over 45 hours of work, as against an estimated 20 hours, a record with details of 5,000 aggregated classified suppliers was created and released containing four of the six requested fields, namely supplier name, size, country and amount.
In its decision on the refined request, which issued by email of 22 July 2015, the Department stated that to break the record down further by category and PSB increases the administrative workload by a factor of 64, the number of PSBs in the report. It stated that this work would stop the work of the Business Intelligence Section of the OGP.
Essentially, the Department's argument is that it would be required to examine each row in the account type description field to ensure that there is no reference to personal information. It stated that in some cases this information is valid and is addressable spend. It added that there are many examples of this spread throughout the data falling under the following types:
The purchase of service/equipment/work for a citizen
Grant payments to citizens
Mis-classification of citizens as suppliers for the purpose of compensation payments.
In his submissions to this Office, the applicant stated his view that the data contains the names of companies and sole traders and individuals engaged in supplying goods and services to State bodies and that the personal information exemption cannot be applied. He argued that there is no extra administrative burden to releasing an extra column naming the public body related to each vendor in the spend data.
I accept the Department's contention regarding the necessity of checking the data to ensure that it did not contain personal information that would be exempt from release under section 37 of the FOI Act. I note that under section 15(1)(c), a body is entitled to take into account the need to examine records in determining whether granting the request would cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of its work (including disruption of work in a particular functional area). I also accept that it has demonstrated that to attempt to release the additional two fields of data would result in a substantial and unreasonable interference with the work of the Business Intelligence Section of the OGP.
The Department provided considerable assistance to the applicant in respect of the refinement of his request, and therefore I am satisfied that it complied with the requirements of section 15(4).While I note that the Department's refusal to provide six fields of data to the applicant ran contrary to the agreement "in principle" of 27 May 2015, I am satisfied that the Department addressed the request in a bona fide manner and attempted to resolve it to the applicant's satisfaction. In this regard, I am conscious of the Department's submission that it expended 45 hours in providing the partial release of the refined request. Consequently, I am satisfied that it has demonstrated that the refined request remained unduly voluminous, and that therefore it was entitled to refuse the request under section 15(1)(c).
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Act, I hereby affirm the decision of the Department.
A party to a review, or any other person affected by a decision of the Information Commissioner following a review, may appeal to the High Court on a point of law arising from the decision. Such an appeal must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.