Case number: 170342
New Frontiers is a national entrepreneur development programme, delivered at a local level by Institutes of Technology and funded by Enterprise Ireland. The programme consists of three phases designed to provide business development supports to participants. Phase 2 involves full-time participation in workshops, mentoring and regular reviews. Successful candidates are chosen following a competitive selection process. The applicant in this case applied to take part in Phase 2 of the New Frontiers 10 programme (the Programme) at DIT in 2016 and was unsuccessful.
In a request dated 28 March 2017, the applicant requested a statement of reasons under section 10 of the Act explaining why his application for the Programme was refused. DIT's response on 26 April 2017 comprised a two page document briefly describing DIT's involvement in the Programme and setting out the process for the selection of participants for Phase 2. This was essentially a timeline of the process along with supporting documentation tabbed and attached as Appendices A- H.
The applicant requested an internal review of DIT's decision, and indicated that he sought "severe clarifications" in relation to the 13 point score sheet provided by DIT (Appendix E). DIT's internal reviewer decided that the statement of reasons provided to the applicant had adequately explained why his application was not short-listed and affirmed the original decision.
On 13 June 2017, the applicant applied to the Commissioner for a review of DIT's decision. He indicated that he was concerned with his exclusion from the programme and that this "centres on the 13 point score sheet (Appendix ?)", which he felt required "greater explanations". He also referred to records he was seeking from DIT. I note that Mr Damien Cahill of this Office wrote to the applicant and informed him that this review was solely concerned with his original request under section 10 of the Act. I am satisfied that this is the correct approach.
I have decided to bring this review to a close by way of a formal binding decision.
In conducting this review I have had regard to DIT's decisions on the matter and its communications with this Office; the applicant's communications with this Office and DIT; and the contents of the statement of reasons provided by DIT and the attached records.
It is relevant to note, as a preliminary matter, that this Office has no remit to investigate complaints, to adjudicate on how FOI bodies perform their functions generally, or to act as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism with respect to actions taken by FOI bodies. Neither does this Office's remit extend to examining the appropriateness or otherwise of the particular act(s) or decision(s) for which statements of reasons are sought.
This review is concerned solely with the question of whether the statement of reasons provided to the applicant by DIT was adequate for the purposes of section 10 of the FOI Act.
Where a requester applies for a review of a decision of a public body on the grounds that s/he is not satisfied with the contents of a statement of reasons, the Commissioner's role is confined to deciding whether the public body has complied with the requirements imposed on it by section 10, i.e. whether the statement given is adequate. His remit does not extend to examining the appropriateness or otherwise of the particular act for which reasons are sought. In this instance, the applicant sought a statement of reasons "as to why my application was refused". Accordingly, in my view, the "act" in question was the decision by DIT not to short-list the applicant for interview for a place on the Programme.
At this point it would be useful to set out what I consider should be the principal features of a statement of reasons having regard to section 10. In my view, a statement of reasons should be intelligible and adequate having regard to the particular circumstances of the case. The statement should be sufficiently clear to enable the requester to understand without undue difficulty why the public body acted as it did. It should identify the criteria relevant to the act and explain how each of the criteria affected the act. However, I do not consider that a statement should necessarily have to contain a detailed clarification of all issues identified by a requester as relevant to a particular act or decision. Furthermore, in previous decisions, this Office has found that provided the statement is adequate and clear, there is no requirement that it be in a particular form.
I have carefully examined the section 10 statement provided by DIT, which sets out the application process on a step by step basis. DIT provided a copy of eight documents to the applicant as part of the statement. Of these, I consider C, D, E, F and H to be of most relevance.
Appendix C (the Scheme) sets out what needs to be evaluated when considering an application form for the Programme. For example, Question 6 relates to the applicant's/team's experience relating to business start-ups, development and project management. The Scheme explains that the applicant needed to demonstrate that he/his team had the ability to operate a successful business, that he had a combination of relevant skills, and a proven track record. It also included a narrative explaining the scores 1-4. In the case of Question 6, a score of 1 is given where the promoter/team have no relevant experience; a score of 2 means that the promoter/team have good project management experience, but this is not related to business start-up or development. A score of 3 is awarded where the promoter/team has been involved in building a business, or managing a project in business development. Finally, a mark of 4 means that the promoter/team has direct and relevant experience of building a business, or managing a project in business development. The applicant scored 3 out of a possible 4 points for Question 6.
In my view, this marking scheme clearly sets out DIT's approach to the evaluation of applications for the programme. It sets out in some detail what it considers to be critical elements and the relevant scores depending on how each was demonstrated by the applicant in his application form. In relation to the issue of scores and marking in the context of section 10 requests, the Commissioner considers that it is generally reasonable to expect that, in making such an assessment, an assessor would have regard to certain criteria or benchmarks which would enable him/her to judge the most appropriate rating for each party being assessed. The Commissioner takes the view in such cases that an FOI body should be in a position to explain to such an individual what the criteria and benchmarks were and what facts were taken into account. In this particular case the decision maker had regard to a very clear marking scheme, which was applied to the contents of each application form, and has been provided to the applicant.
DIT also provided the applicant with a copy of his scores (the 13 point score sheet to which he referred in his application to this Office) and a separate table showing the anonymised scores for all the participants. DIT's letter explained to the applicant that 30 people were short-listed following the evaluation and were invited to interview.
It is relevant to note that the Commissioner has found in previous cases that where an FOI body has a particular practice which it follows in taking decisions in a particular set of circumstances and where that practice has been followed then, normally, there should be no further need to enquire into the thought processes of the decision maker. As I understand it this evaluation method is routinely used for such applications.
It is clear from the statement of reasons provided that the applicant's application was not successful as he did not score highly enough in the first round of evaluations to be short-listed and called to interview. To put it another way, at least 30 people scored more highly than him in the first stage of the process. It seems to me that the applicant is seeking specific feedback on his form and the scores applied to the various elements so that he can understand in detail why he was not successful. However, section 10 does not require an FOI body to provide detailed feedback to unsuccessful applicants. Nonetheless, I note that DIT also wrote to the applicant on 12 January 2017 suggesting some areas he could focus on to increase his chances in future applications.
In my view, the statement of reasons including the documentation provided by DIT to the applicant explains why he was not short-listed and called to the next stage of the selection process. I am therefore satisfied that it has fulfilled its obligations under section 10 of the FOI Act, and I find accordingly.
Having carried out a review under section 22(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I affirm DIT's decision in this case.
Section 24 of the FOI Act sets out detailed provisions for an appeal to the High Court by a party to a review, or any other person affected by the decision. In summary, such an appeal, normally on a point of law, must be initiated not later than four weeks after notice of the decision was given to the person bringing the appeal.