Back in March 2012, I sent a Freedom of Information request to FÁS and the Department of Social Protection (DSP) seeking two items:
(1) Records maintained by FÁS relating to the number of jobbridge positions accepted by participants, how many jobbridge programmes have been completed, and relating to what happened afterwards to participants.
(2) Records relating to the assessment, monitoring, quality control mechanisms etc FÁS is using in relation to the jobbridge programme.
I also sought a datadump (export of/copy of) the entirety of the Jobbridge database, since the inception of that database. This should include all relevant fields, including the name and contact details for the applying companies seeking trainees under the National Internship scheme.
Some weeks later, at the end of May, I received the documents below, although the database took a while longer.
JobBridge Terms of Reference for Host Organisation
JobBridge Monitoring Visits Comments
JobBridge Finishers Data as at 29th March 2012
JobBridge Graph as at 28th March 2012
JobBridge National Internship Report as at 29th March 2012
JobBridge Regional Process for Complaints
JobBridge Monitoring Checklist Report
JobBridge Monitoring and Compliance as at 29th March
JobBridge National Contact Centre Internship Quality Guidelines
I’ve uploaded PDF versions of these documents for anyone to peruse [See end of article].
Interestingly, most of the original MS Word documents appear to have been generated on or around 29 March 2012, the date when the database dump I requested was created. It seems some of them have been made public since then and reports based on their contents appeared in the following weeks in various newspapers.
Monitoring Visits Comments illustrates the kind of issues FOI raises regularly in Ireland. I’d have expected to receive lots of the Internship Evaluation Forms filled out by the interns, perhaps with personal details (name, company etc) blanked out. Instead, its a three-page document of edited extracts from feedback by interns and companies. The comments from companies and individuals are overwhelmingly positive, the closest to a criticism is a comment by one intern that they are finishing early to move to NYC because of a job offer.
Anecdote is never evidence, but given the number of dissatisfied Jobbridge interns I have encountered, I would have expected a more mixed response to the feedback process.
The big item in my FOI request was a datadump of the Jobbridge datatbase. DSP initially didn’t want to give me the database because of unspecified data protection issues, for example confidential company information in the job description boxes, phone numbers and emails of the individuals advertising the job etc. None of the issues highlighted were valid data protection issues in my opinion, but I let it pass. Let’s face it, I don’t really need a fax number. I was interested in the companies, and the internships they offered.
The second issue I faced was an anonymity request. In filling out the form online, a company ticks a box so that “company information/logo is part of this advertisement”. The FOI officer told me his advice was that companies who had not indicated this had requested anonymity. I asked if we could compromise without prejudice that they could release general details of the company (location, industry (NACE) code) etc. No dice.
In plain English, this means I have been denied approximately 20% of Jobbridge records because of “anonymity”.
Third, there are actually three databases, one for the company details (which may be used for other purposes, eg when the company advertises a regular job with FAS, or an apprenticeship), and two “internship” databases. Every company has a unique COMPANY_ID, and this number appears in the job database, linking a specific job to a company.
The FOI officer informs me that this COMPANY_ID is used at some point in the log-on process when a company uses the Jobbridge website to advertise a position, or in other contacts with FAS.
This therefore is “a personal identifier”, which along with other information is used to verify a company identity in communications with FAS/Jobbridge.
As this ID number is “a unique identifier to the company and personal” Jobbridge therefore will not release it.
I can see how this sloppy security arrangement might cause FAS/Jobbridge some concern in fulfilling my FOI, but I cannot find any provision of the Freedom of Information Act allowing for this exemption.
I pointed out that a simple search & replace script could substitute new ID numbers for these confidential ID numbers, so protecting any sensitive information. They argued this would mean they generated a new record, and “would not be consistent with the provision of an existing record.”
In plain English, this means the datadump has been disabled so that it is not possible (or at least, very difficult) to identify which company is behind which internship offer.
I’ve notified the FOI officer of my intention to appeal their various refusals, and I’m awaiting their reply with details of the name of the appeals officer.
This process has now been ongoing for several months, despite statutory timetables of 14 and 21 days at various points in the FOI process. For the record, I have no criticism of the FOI officer I’ve dealt with. He’s been most helpful at every turn, even if not all my requests have been provided.
I cannot help feeling though, that in future FOI requests, my approach should be more legalistic. Deadlines will be noted, and appeals sought immediately they expire. I’m a journalist, I cannot allow FOI requests to trundle on interminably if I hope to generate stories from the process.
For now though, I’m making the (incomplete) database public below. Feel free to run any operations or searches on the data, but I’d ask that if you do find anything of interest, you link back to me, and leave a comment telling me what you found.