The testy tone of some exchanges between Department of Social Protection officials and Irish Water about what officials said was the utility's failure to engage with them illustrate the governance failures in the utility.
Irish Water appears to have shown no pro-active interest in contacting the department. It seems to have been, on the one hand, unclear about the kind of information it wanted or needed and, on the other hand, expecting it would get easy access to a wide-ranging “data dump” of citizens’ data.
Ultimately, the requirement that PPS numbers be handed over to Irish Water was dropped – which shows the measure wasn’t needed in the first place.
No need for data
It is clear, from records released under Freedom of Information legislation, that the department’s household benefit section had devised at an early stage a way to apply a €100 water allowance for customers without the need to exchange data with the utility.
Yet Irish Water insisted it needed information on child benefit – including the children for whom it was being paid, and the person being paid the benefit.
Email exchanges between the parties indicate, in one instance, an abrupt end to a phone call between Irish Water and the department as an official attempted to establish exactly what the utility was looking for and how the department was expected to provide it.
In one odd email exchange, it emerged that Irish Water’s head of risk did not appear to be aware that legislation was actually being finalised that would allow the utility to ask for PPS numbers.
While the official position was that the Department of Social Protection supported the Government decision on water charges, it is clear there was resistance among its staff to passing on personal data.
Officials were concerned as well that they might end up dealing with a flood of phone calls from citizens blaming them for a decision on water allowances that was nothing to do with them.
It wasn't until September 1st that Irish Water's customer services manager, Mike Cody, finally acknowledged that the utility needed to "engage formally with the department". And yet it was September 18th before chief executive John Tierney wrote to the secretary general, Niamh O'Donoghue.
Department official Tony Kieran told colleagues in an email that he had informed Mr Cody it would have been "good manners" to have notified the department and others of its intention to issue 20,000 water forms in September as it might have an impact on their local offices.
Records also reveal that Ms O'Donoghue learned in a meeting with former data protection commissioner Billy Hawkes that Irish Water had told him it would be seeking information on "household composition", and that he had concerns about this.