Friday, 1 May 2015

'Freedom of Information' and Information-free Minutes

Freedom of Information requests seemingly have created a problem for those in public governance who regulate the flow of information.

Some minutes of meetings now are little more than 'action points'. The following exchange at the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on April 23, 2015 would suggest that our elected representatives might not have detected the significant drop in information content** that has taken place in recent years:

Mr Hilditch: Maybe this is a question more for DCAL officials. There was a get-together around 12 December: is there a minute of that meeting?

Ms Smith: There were action points agreed at that meeting.

Mr Hilditch: Was there a minute of that meeting?

Ms Smith: Action points.

Mr Hilditch: Sorry, was there a minute of that meeting?

Ms Smith: It depends what you define as "a minute". A minute would be —

Mr Hilditch: Is there a proper minute of the meeting?

Ms Smith: An action point sheet was produced as a result of that meeting. It has been an ongoing process. It was not a one-off. Action points were agreed. Subsequently, we have been liaising —

Mr Hilditch: Surely they were put together at the end of the meeting in relation to the minute that was taken. Is there a minute of the meeting?

Ms Smith: The action points are the minute.

The Chairperson (Mr McCausland): Sorry, I think what he is asking is whether there was a note of the meeting, a minute of the meeting.

Ms Smith: There was a note with action points.

[Definition of a minute: "Permanent, formal, and detailed (although not verbatim) record of business transacted, and resolutions adopted, at a firm's official meetings such as board of directors, manager's, and annual general meeting (AGM). Once written up (or typed) in a minute book and approved at the next meeting, the minutes are accepted as a true representation of the proceedings they record and can be used as prima facie evidence in legal matters.]

Here is a snippet from a 'minute' of the DCAL Departmental Board meeting on February 24, 2015:

12.0 Stadium Update (DB 18-15) 

12.1 Rory Miskelly provided an update to the Board on progress on the Regional Stadium programme. 

12.2 The Board noted the progress with each stadium and discussed the key actions which will be taking place in the weeks ahead and the management of key risks and challenges, in particular developments in the Casement Park project in light of December’s Judicial Review decision.

So there were 'actions', 'risks' and 'challenges' - but there's no indication of their nature or significance.

'Re-energise' is a new term to me in the context of that April 25 CCAL meeting:

Mr Miskelly: I believe that we are moving to a meeting tomorrow with key principal stakeholders, and we will then move to re-energise the STG [safety technical group] in about two and a half weeks.

Ms Smith: I think that all members of the STG are committed to the importance of delivering a safe facility. We will certainly work closely with Sport NI and the group to re-energise it, as you say, and to ensure that it has very clear —

The Chairperson (Mr McCausland): Sorry, will you speak a wee bit louder?

Ms Smith: Absolutely. I am just giving an absolute assurance that, where the respective responsibilities are concerned, the group operates as effectively and efficiently as it can, has the appropriate supports and the communication levels are absolutely clear between the various stakeholders and interested bodies. It is really important that we have very strong communications between the various parties involved and the work of the group, the Department, the GAA and the design team. Moving forward, we really want to ensure that we have strengthened and made that very clear, given the importance of all this.

Perhaps our senior public servants, elected and bureaucratic, are equally in need of 're-energising'. It seems the STG chair was sufficiently 're-energised'; he blew the whistle on alleged bullying.

** Department for Regional Development NI - Dear Minister
** Giants Causeway - Save the Causeway Memorial School Museum 2