The First Rule Of ‘Senior Officials Group’

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From top: Department of the Taoiseach; A schedule of meetings of the Senior Officials Group (SOG); Access to records denied

Who’s running the show?

Who’s really running the show?

Investigative journalist and lecturer Ken Foxe writes

One of the key parts of the state’s COVID19 strategy has been the creation of a Senior Officials Group (SOG) to assist the government.

I hoped to find out a bit more about what they’ve been doing through their agendas and minutes … the response will probably not surprise you.

The creation of the Senior Officials Group was announced as part of the national action plan on Covid-19 back in mid-March. Very little is known about it.

Its establishment and work has not been welcomed by all.

One government minister was quoted in May as saying there is “no scrutiny” of it and that even they could not get copies of the minutes.

From the schedule of records, we know that many meetings took place. But we cannot have any further information on the agenda, what was discussed, who attended, or what was decided.

This was then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil on April 16: “Transparency is really important here. If we want to keep the trust of the people, we need to be transparent …”

It’s difficult to square what has been said in public about transparency and then having a group like this, which operates entirely in secret.

The decision has today been appealed by @RightToKnowIE

Anyone?

Ken Foxe

Right to Know

32 thoughts on “The First Rule Of ‘Senior Officials Group’

  1. Tom Wong

    Why do you want to know Ken?

    Don’t you think a lot of those people have more to be doing at this point in time than responding to irrelevant FOIA requests?

      1. Tom Wong

        Fair point Bodger.

        Is it really going to make a lot of difference though? It was an emergency situation and we don’t have time for the likes of much due process during an emergency. (Please discuss).

        And PS am I on the naughty list because I said ‘boo-boos’ or because I said ‘tinky-winkle’? Or both?

          1. Paulus

            …but what if someone is cock-a-hoop…say about the great accommodation offers in Galway?

      2. Vanessanelle

        And what other jobs / top ups they have

        Minutes in fairness, should be made available without any FOI rigmarole

        Whatever about their payroll take-home,
        We must shurely be entitled to know who was in attendance, and what decisions they voted on
        Or didn’t

  2. Cian

    Looks like the following was the reason [Freedom of Information Act 2014 ]:

    Exempt Records
    Meetings of the Government
    28. (1) A head may refuse to grant an FOI request if the record concerned—
    […]
    (c) contains information (including advice) for a member of the Government, the Attorney General, a Minister of State, the Secretary General to the Government for use by him or her solely for the purpose of the transaction of any business of the Government at a meeting of the Government.

      1. Cian

        Have you ever got minutes from any of the other Senior Officials Groups that service government committees?

    1. Vanessanelle

      I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason tbh

      Fair enough the AG doesn’t want me to know what he earns
      But I damn well want to know what’s coming out of his trap when he’s instructing members of the Cabinet on all Matters that aren’t Security of the State or Sub- Judice

      1. Cian

        And this seems to be based on the constitution:
        Article 28.4
        3° The confidentiality of discussions at meetings
        of the Government shall be respected in all
        circumstances save only where the High Court
        determines that disclosure should be made in
        respect of a particular matter.

        1. Ken Foxe

          Which part of “contains information (including advice) for a member of the Government, the Attorney General, a Minister of State, the Secretary General to the Government for use by him or her solely for the purpose of the transaction of any business of the Government at a meeting of the Government” covers agendas/minutes of the Senior Officials Group in your opinion? It will be useful for the appeal.
          You will also note use of the word “may”. It’s a really important, if largely ignored, part of the FOI Act.
          The word “may” allows public bodies to release information of this nature.
          The actual intent of the original FOI Act was that information would only be withheld if it would be contrary to the public interest.
          Unfortunately, many civil servants have treated the FOI Act as if information should only be released if they absolutely have no other choice.

          1. Vanessanelle

            +V

            And even just on matters where Conflict is present

            ie local Investment, and even on appointments; remember Máire Whelan?
            (Who was present and never said a word about other applicants to the job she secured for herself)

          2. Cian

            My understanding of Senior Officials Groups (which is based only on 10 minutes on Google) is that they are formed of senior civil servants to provide information to government cabinet committees. Information requests are made to them by Ministers and their responses (advice/information) are key to cabinet decisions.

            If my understanding is correct, then anything they provide to the government is definitely covered by that clause. Since minutes of those meeting would give a very thorough understanding of what went to cabinet “information (including advice)” I can see why the minutes would be covered by that clause.

            The only thing left is the agenda – depending on the level of detail of the agenda it may reveal their instructions from cabinet. This is the part that I would see as being most likely to be FOIable.

            What was your original request? Did you *ask* for a list of attendees?

          3. Anonymous Irish Civil Servant

            I was an FOI officer in a Government Department in the mid-2000s (albeit dealing with personal requests, and not journalists, etc.), and I was trained at that time exactly as Ken says above, i.e., “that information would only be withheld if it would be contrary to the public interest.”

            The overriding principle was to release everything asked for, unless there was a very good reason you shouldn’t.

            I think things have changed.

  3. Zaccone

    It absolutely boggles the mind that anyone could claim theres any reason not to at least release the names of the people attending these meetings. It doesn’t fall under any sort of national security criteria. Corona isn’t going to specifically target them for retribution like.

    1. Cian

      FOI is a funny beast (as Ken himself mentioned here a few months back).
      You only get what you ask for and no more (and you might not even get it).

      If Ken asked specifically for the attendees of these meetings he might get them. If he asked for the minutes he might be told “no”.

  4. Charger Salmons

    I would have been happy with someone being put up on TV for live questioning by the media and members of the public at say 5pm every day of the pandemic.
    But no-one in Ireland seemed arsed about this and everyone was happy to leave it up to ” them ” because they always know better.
    Especially as it was much more fun watching Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab squirm on British TV as people were dying in their thousands.
    But at least they had the balls to do it week in week out.
    So at this stage what’s to be achieved by making a fuss.
    There’s no point in holding politicians to account if the public don’t care until it’s too late and the politicians don’t give a fig when they know they can get away with it.
    Recent Irish history is littered with this sort of stuff.

  5. SOQ

    The biggest rupture of our lifetimes within Irish society and we are not allowed to ask who is responsible for making those decisions?

    On your bike.

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