Update 22/06/12 00:37am: At 3.31pm Thursday, I received a reply to *some of* my questions from Invest NI’s press office. They still didn’t answer my question about how they knew about my FOI request. At 3.36pm, I called the HQ in Bedford Street and asked to be put through to whichever department handles FOI’s. I ended up speaking to a lovely young guy who works in a department called ‘Internal Operations’. He told me his job was to assign FOI requests to the relevant departments who held the information. He told me that, when he or another colleague forwards an FOI to the relevant department, they CC the press office on the email so they’re “aware of the queries that are coming in”. This seems plausible, although I suspect Invest’s press office was briefed specifically about my FOI because I’m a journalist and I’ve asked some “very embarrassing questions” (as one source pointed out).
File this under strange and interesting.
I’m not the most popular person in Bedford Street right now. As I wrote yesterday, my good friends in Invest NI are upset with my questions. Sources tell me I’ve rattled some very senior cages.
But I didn’t realise just how much I’d upset them, to the point where the PR department seems to be [trying to] blocking my access to information. Wednesday morning, I emailed to ask them a few questions about the management structure of the worldwide operation. I also wanted to confirm the names of two Vice-Presidents who had previously run the West Coast operation. I had asked similar questions in my FOI but I was going to write something on Wednesday so needed the information sooner.
At 12:15, I received this email:
Further to your call and email below, you currently have a FOI request (FOI 512) for information on the organisation, reporting structure and management of our oversees operations in the US. As your query below is asking for the same information for our global operation and thus includes the US I will forward your query to the FOI team and ask that this be incorporated into their response.
This was strange. How would a PR exec, someone who (I’m assuming) works in a separate department from the FOI team, know about an FOI I submitted? Somehow, I doubt it’s because she reads my blog. By passing my questions to the FOI team instead of answering them, she was delaying my access to this information by another 12 working days (whether deliberately or not, I’m not sure. It could be completely innocent; if I find out that it is, I’ll duly update this post. Invest NI have up to 20 working days to respond to my FOI request; 8 have already passed). The questions would have been fairly simple to answer with a phone call to senior management. So why pass the job on to someone else and make me wait two weeks for it?
What I found more strange was that the PR officer in question was a manager, not the young exec I’d spoken to earlier that morning. I replied and asked her:
1) Out of curiosity: was my press query escalated to you by a less senior member of staff?
2) How did you know about my FOI?
She replied, saying the query was not escalated; she was in the office when it came in so she dealt with it. She did not answer question two. At 5.30pm, two minutes after she replied, I sent another message back:
Thanks for answering that. Can I ask how you knew about my FOI?
As of 1:05am Thursday, she hasn’t replied.
Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive. But it strikes me as strange that the press team would know about my dealings with other departments. It could be that they have some sort of CRM system that shows them an individual’s previous contact with the organisation (but surely this could lead to confidentiality breaches?). It’s a mystery.