INTREPID JOGGER for climate change awareness and entirely unbiased, straight bat investigative reportette Melissa Fyfe lodges a vaguely detailed request for information about a Victorian government department and "any" savings achieved by consolidating operations.
She doesn't get info, but she does get a few tips on clear writing and thinking from departmental spokesman Ross Gilmour:
At present there are three matters which have the effect that your request does not, unfortunately, provide sufficient information for me to identify the documents you seek. I make the following comment about your request, which is presently ambiguous and unclear, and because of which a search for documents has not been commenced.
First, your request seeks “any” of certain specific documents. Could you please let me know if you mean that you seek only one document which contains the information described and that single document would suffice, or whether you seek all such documents in the possession of CenITex.
Secondly, it is ambiguous as to what is meant by the term “documenting the savingsachieved”. Do you seek a document recording the amount of any such savings, or do you seek documents which set out or describe how any savings are achieved (regardless of whether they record the amount of any savings), or do you seek something else?
Thirdly, it is uncertain and ambiguous what you mean by the phrase “the savings achieved due to CenITex’s centralisation of IT services across the Victorian public sector”.
Accordingly, consistently with my obligations under the FOI Act, I invite you to consult in writing with CenITex with a view to amending or clarifying your request....
Gilmour might have saved himself some trouble if he had simply replied that an infestation of moths spawned by climate change had eaten every single document. She would have believed every word.
Update: Several commenters see Ross Gilmour as being more at fault than his investigative correspondent, noting that Fyfe was attempting to gain information on the use and/or saving of public monies, a goal we can all agree is laudable. The problem is that Fyfe’s request is so broad it is useless – not least because it allows so much room for wiggle and obfuscation.
Had she said, “I seek copies of ALL financial estimates and analyses of efficiencies estimated to result from, and subsequently attributed to, the consolidation of IT operations”, the grey area in which bureaucrats frolic would have been substantially narrowed.
There is little sympathy at the Billabong for bureaucrats of any variety, but one must understand Gilmour’s position. He might, for example, have gamed Fyfe’s request and tossed her just a few meaningless documents while retaining the juicy ones. That would have qualified as “any”.
Similarly, because her request is so broad, he might have dumped a tonne of documents in Fyfe’s lap, which would not have pleased Fairfax’s bean-counters, as FOI search-and-copying costs involve $40-per-hour fees for search and supervision, plus 20 cents per photocopied sheet.
A further thought: One would have thought the Age would have, somewhere in the building, an FOI specialist -- either an in-house counsel or specialist on retainer -- available to provide advice and vet requests before submission. Perhaps that person was laid-off along with the newspaper's sub-editors.