One criticism of Freedom of Information is that it costs a lot of money? But does it?
Reading through the transcript of the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform from 10 January, which discussed the Irish Republic's proposed new Freedom of Information Bill, I found the following interesting detail:
Brendan Howlin (Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform): In 2011, the totality of fees divided by the number of actual FOI requests which were non-personal generated an average charge of €23. The actual cost - these are not absolute figures - of providing that information was €640 per request.
The amount of fees charged is not a new revelation, it's in the Information Commissioner's Annual Report. But the cost of requests is one I've not seen before. It sounds like quite a lot of money (and since public bodies can charge €20 per hour for looking for the information, it suggests the average amount of time finding it is 32 hours, which is scarcely plausible). But look again.
These requests only apply to non-personal requests, which are equivalent to the sort of FOI requests covered by laws in other countries such as the UK (the Irish FOI Act allows people to request information held on themselves, and these represent about 70% of the total; there is no charge for these).
One benefit of having fees for requests is that you can count the exact number of them. The total amount of fees charged (for making a request, finding the information, and reviews and appeals) was €87,439; an average charge of €23 implies 3,801 requests. If the cost per enquiry was €640, this gives us a total cost of non-personal FOI requests:
Even for a small country like Ireland, that's peanuts. Almost the entire cost of FOI requests for a year could have been met by meeting EU regulations for septic tanks.
So when politicians say increasing use of FOI would 'overwhelm' the civil service, it's worth bearing this figure in mind.