Sunday, March 18, 2012

Words Fail Her

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.

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.


  1. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.March 18, 2012 at 2:50 PM

    Programmatic specificity not her strong suit, eh Prof? Nor any other sort of specificity, it seems. Someone using half a brain would have had at least half an idea of what she was looking for. Bingo! A classic example of how to get yourself clouted by a bureaucrat in the first round.

  2. The Old and Unimproved DaveMarch 18, 2012 at 3:00 PM

    Wrote it in crayon, did she ?

  3. Organic, bio-degradable, free-trade crayon, of course.

  4. Maybe she 'shoulda' just asked a more general question such as, "Have you sort of anything you've kinda like got on you know what might be a good idea?"

  5. It's a shame she botched it up because from my reading the CenITex operation stinks to high hell.

  6. I fear Mr Gilmour too needs some help with English expression. His first sentence is an anacoluthon. To say "ambiguous and unclear is a tautology". "and because of which" introduces another anacoluthon. "consistently" should be "consistent".
    Nevertheless, I applaud Mr Gilmour for calling Miss Fyfe to order.

  7. Now I've read the original in full and reflected further on it further I'm changing my mind. I think the request was not ambiguous and it's CenITex who are in the wrong.

    1. Any or all - can't a reasonable assumption be made? Obviously she wants all that are available. This is petty.

    2. "documenting the savings achieved" - this isn't ambiguous at all, she wants those items which -- how else to put it? -- Document The Savings Achieved! She wants numbers which detail the savings, if any, achieved from CenITex's existence. Example: We previously spent $100 million and now we spend $70 million, hence a saving of $30 million (see next).

    3. "the savings achieved due to CenITex’s centralisation of IT services across the Victorian public sector" - look, CenITex was set up to consolidate previously (and still...) scattered government IT support operations into one centralised department, hence savings expected due to reduced redundancy.

    From CenITex's own About page:

    - Improves quality of customer service and value
    - Allows economies of scale and reduces risks from under-investment
    - Realises operational productivity benefits from increased scale and synergy

    What, Ross Gilmour Director of Corporate Communications at CenITex doesn't know this?

    We're paying these people, 'Boys', up to $350,000 per year to save money.

    1. David, the post has an update. I don't dispute the spirit of any of your points, but it would be a mistake to attribute "reasonable" attitudes to bureaucrats, who know not the meaning of the word. They are literalists by vocation and definition. If one wishes to winkle something out of them, one must play by their rules and standards or see the game hide-and-seek cancelled before it can begin. As the update notes, does the Age not have an FOI specialist to vet, refine and approve such requests?

      And yes, I have no doubt IT costs have gone up as a result of consolidation.

    2. Thanks for update.

      I have a hunch the answer would be "no such financial estimates or analyses exist", which is the appropriate FOI response if they don't. Also maybe CenITex shouldn't be expected to perform such analyses but rather the level above them which decided to give birth to CenITex.

  8. Actually, on this one I think I am on her "side". The FOI officer is being a smart-ass. His first point is legalistic - but possibly arguable - and invites the use of the word "all" instead, so she should simply respond with "all".

    The remaining two are rubbish. Firstly, she said "achieved" not "achievable" or "might be achieved". That clearly means "actual" savings not proposed or expected savings.

    Lastly, centralisation of IT is exactly what CeniTex aims to achieve, and has achieved with respect to the departments captured. My guess is this is a cover for "we haven't achieved any savings - in fact we cost more".

    Of course, monetary "savings" are only small subset of the issue at stake, and in the history of IT centralisation rarely achieved this way. The real price is in the resulting lost management innovation, tardy market responsiveness, duplication of IT services under other names, de-localisation and upscaling of IT development efforts in favour of major projects from foreign or large scale providers, and positioning IT as fixed infrastructure of government rather than a rapidly evolving market differentiator at the business unit level.

    1. She is from the Age. Stuff her, stuff her hat and stuff the horse she rode up on.

      Otherwise you make several good points.

  9. Ross Gilmour has been around for a while. Worked as a journo himself for a while. So he knows how to spin things. Ross was hired when CenITex was set up.

    And this:
    "CenITex itself needs up to a year to respond to The Age's freedom-of-information requests because it does not have the easily searchable public record system required of state agencies and departments."
    - The Age Edtorial, 2nd March 2012.

    A year?? An IT organiation can't find electornic records???

  10. Dough from Hobart.
    Gilmour did NOT say "ambiguous and unclear is a tautology".
    But if you are trying to make this point [with misplaced inverted commas], then you are wrong. There is a distinct difference between ambiguous and unclear.
    For instance, you are unclear in your understanding of "tautology" but there is no ambiguity in your post.

  11. Melissa Fyfe comes across as a simpering fool at any time.
    Gilmour must have felt embarrassment for the journalistic profession when he got this request.