Two months after the European Regional Summit for OGP, Irish civil society welcomed a somewhat unexpected but not less celebrated achievement, as Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform announced that the Government approved the removal of the €15 FOI application fee for non-personal FOI requests as part of a suite of reforms to Ireland’s FOI regime. During and right after the Summit there was no clear signal of the government reconsidering its stance on removing FOI fees – a point fiercely pushed for by Irish civil society through OGP – but two months later this development will be celebrated as a win for civil society.
The Minister said:
“Over the last number of months I have concluded that Ireland’s fees regime for FOI required a radical overhaul. The FOI fees measures which I am putting in place restore the balance in relation to FOI fees envisaged in that path-breaking legislation. These reforms will allow our citizens access to information on a level par with best practice across the OECD. After all, information and data are the currencies of the new age.”
He also referred to the Irish OGP Action Plan as a major contributing factor for his decision:
“My assessment of FOI fees reform was strongly informed by the issues raised in the pre-legislative scrutiny of my proposals on FOI carried out by the Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee the FOI Bill and the debate on the Bill during its passage through the Oireachtas, as well as the views of civil society participating to the preparation of Ireland’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan. My conclusions were strongly reinforced by discussions I had with colleagues and participants at the OGP Europe Regional Conference held in Dublin Castle in May which highlighted the vital role of FOI as a cornerstone of openness, transparency and accountability of government and public administration”.
Although it took a while before this major development was eventually decided upon, after all we could say the Irish civil society lobby has been rather successful. With Ireland playing a major role as organizer of the Summit, civil society successfully seized the opportunity to start an effective lobby for abolishment of the fees. This case demonstrates the vast strategic opportunities for civil society to advocate for genuine open government reforms once their national governments play a leading role in OGP.
On Wednesday, July 23rd, the first Irish National Action Plan was published, spanning three main areas: Open Data and Transparency, Citizen Participation and Strengthening Governance and Accountability. It can be found on Ireland’s country page on the OGP website. In reaction TASC, one of the organisations closely involved in the Irish OGP process, wrote a blog post commenting on the new Action Plan.