Guest blog: A Requester’s Saga: Dysfunction at the UNEP Over Handling Access Requests

Guest blog by Toby McIntosh. Toby has reported for several decades on transparency at international institutions and on freedom for information issues world-wide. During a journalistic career in Washington, he covered the White House, Congress and many regulatory agencies. First published here.

The UN Environment Programme’s access to information system is dysfunctional.

This conclusion is based on personal experience.

During 2023, I filed four requests for information, three of them about UNEP’s programs on methane emissions and the fourth about the access process itself. And appealed the denial of one request.

The experience has revealed significant problems with UNEP’s access to information system.

  • The designated e-mail address for access requests is not working.
  • Requests for information sent through other channels were not acknowledged on time or handled efficiently.
  • The appeals process may now be operational, but my appeal was in limbo for six months.
  • UNEP has yet to disclose the membership of the three-person appeals panel.
  • A detailed letter sent to the UNEP “Complaint Mechanism” about the access policy has gone unanswered.

All told, the experience of using UNEP’s access-to-information policy has been time-consuming and disheartening.

The ad hoc nature of the process was exemplified Sept. 1 when the UNEP staffer who for months seemed to be the point of contact wrote to say she wasn’t the right person after all.

Instead, a person in the legal office has now been designated as the correct contact and communication has improved.

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Delay and Confusion

Maybe nobody but FOI masochists will want to read the following record of interaction and inaction, but documentation is necessary, so this will be as succinct as possible.

In the beginning, things seemed to go well. Two Jan. 24 requests resulted in the release of some documents on Feb. 14.

But even then there were some warning signs. It took several weeks, until Feb. 6, just to get confirmation that the requests had been received. Under UNEP’s access policy, “The requestor should expect to receive an acknowledgement of receipt of the request within five (5) working days.”

The requests were sent to unepinfo@unep.org, the e-mail designated in the UNEP policy.

But there was no reply.

Eventually contact was made by writing other places.

On Feb. 3, I wrote to the head of the UNEP communications office, Moses Osani, who said he was “happy to help” and asked what information I needed.

On Feb. 6, an e-mail from UNEP staffer Pooja Munshi, Head of Web, Digital Transformation Task Force, who began, “Apologies for the delay in responding.” Munshi continued, “I am copying the Communications Lead on IMEO who can guide you towards the documentation you are looking for.” IMEO is the acronym for the program I had inquired about. The person designated to respond was UNEP staffer Sophie Loran, whose title is “Global Lead, Advocacy & Communications, Climate Action Global Lead, Advocacy & Communications, Climate Action.”

“Miscommunication Internally”

While this seemed like welcome progress, there was still an irregular feeling of ad hockery about the process.

“I remain concerned that the ATI process seems not to have been engaged,” I wrote back on Feb. 7, “The policy and the procedures provide necessary structure for the handling of requests. I am left wondering whether the advertised address for sending in requests is being monitored.” I sent much the same message on Feb. 10.

On Feb. 10, a response came from the UNEP News Desk. The e-mail was also sent to 4 UNEP staffers (including two new persons). It acknowledged the Jan. 24 requests and hinted internal confusion with a promise of reform. It said:

  • We acknowledge that we have received your request.
  • Relevant colleagues are copied and are taking action as a matter of urgency.
  • Some of the information requested requires a bit more time and clearance but do rest assured that you will receive a response and guidance.
  • Regarding the timeline for responding, indeed, there was miscommunication internally and the workflow is being reviewed and corrected to ensure appropriate timely responses as outlined on the website.
  • Thank you for your patience and understanding and we apologize for the delay.

Some Documents Produced

UNEP on Feb. 14 supplied two of the three documents requested, but denied access to a copy of contract with a commercial provider of images of methane emissions.

The contract is between UNEP’s International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) and Kayrros, a company that provides satellite images about methane emissions worldwide. Eye on Global Transparency has been writing about the IMEO’s Methane Alert and Response System. (See latest article, about a delay in the release of emission information.)

The reply from UNEP News Desk (with copies to 4 persons and unep-info@un.org) offered no explanation of the rationale for the denial, saying only that it was confidential. “As per applicable provisions of the ATI Policy and other UN policies, this document is confidential and can’t be shared with external entities/individuals.”

This barebones reply seemed vague compared to typical responses from other international  institutions and possibly below the standard set out in UNEP’s access policy, which states:

In case of denying a request for information, UNEP will provide the requestor with a reason for denying such a request.

On Feb. 28 EYE asked for a more specific justification. On the same day, UNEP just sent a link to its whole policy, nothing more.

Filing an Appeal, and Oops

On March 8, EYE appealed the denial, with copies to the News Desk and to Loran.

The appeal was not acknowledged.

This silence should have been a cause for immediate concern. Note to self: always keep following up.

On June 2, about the time when a panel decision should have been issued, I sought a status report from Loran and the News Desk. UNEP’s policy calls for appeals to be completed in 60 working days. That period ended around June 1.

No replies, so a follow-up was sent to Loran on June 13, again generating no reply.

Did the Appeals Panel Even Exist?

At this point, another suspicion was aroused — that the three-person panel to handle appeals,  two UNEP staffers and an external expert, might not be constituted.

The first external member was Carole Excell, a FOI expert whose appointment was announced by UNEP on June 30, 2016. She stepped down in 2020.

Seeing no evidence she had been replaced, I asked who the panel members were, this time directing the June 19 message to the News Desk and Loran.

No replies despite a prompt to Loran on July 5.

On July 5, EYE asked officially for the names of the panel members. The message to the official intake address given in the access policy was not acknowledged, per usual, so on July 10, EYE asked Loran to confirm its arrival. She replied July 10, “Acknowledging receipt and will check how to get this list.”

But no substantive answer by July 25, so another note to Loran, and a July 25 reply: “Thank you for the reminder. Apologize for the late reply. I will reach out for guidance to send you the information before the end of the week.”

Further reminder requests to Loran, Aug. 2, Aug. 8 and Aug. 15 were not answered.

Trying Other Channels

Out of concern that the problems with UNEP’s access system needed institutional attention,  I wrote on July 29 to the Complaint Mechanism, the designated place at UNEP to address problems (unep-iossr@un.org). “I write with a concern that UNEP’s access to information system is dysfunctional.”

The Compliant Mechanism policy requires a reply within 10 business days. I inquired again about my filing on Aug. 11 but still have not heard anything back.

On Aug. 18, I summarized my concerns in a letter to UNEP Under Secretary-General Inger Andersen. No reply yet.

Another Request Delayed

On Aug. 8, I made a new official request, for materials similar to those that were previously provided in January about the MARS project advisory panel. Again, no reply from the designated mailbox, unepinfo@unep.org.

On Aug. 28, I wrote to Loran about the status of the request and the appeal, this time copying two top UNEP communications officials, Osani and Keishamaza Rukikaire, Head of News and Media.

If you’ve been with me this far, here’s where it get a little strange, but with some hopeful signs.

Loran wrote back to say that neither she nor the other two officials are the correct persons to contact.

Instead, Loran said she had “finally identified the focal point.”

She connected me with Camila Nkwenti, who has a long title (commas added): “Legal Officer, Conduct and Discipline Focal Point, SEA/SH Focal Point, Legal Unit, Corporate Services Division.”

This hand-off was good news after months of trying to work through Loran and the News Desk.

“It seemed quite clear,” I wrote Loran, “that you and the news desk were handling access requests. I never received any replies from the address listed in the access policy.”

Loran replied, “Please let me clarify but I do not work to News Desk. We responded to your request to access information.” In a later note she said, “As mentioned, I am not the focal point for access to information. I will let u take it from there with Camila.”

Hello Camila

Camila Nkwenti responded on Sept. 1, asking me for a copy of my March 8 appeal.

This has begun an correspondence. I asked her for clarification on what is going with the appeal, with my other access requests and with my unanswered letter to the Complaint Mechanism.

For the first time there is mention of an “Access to Information Desk” in the Communications Division. The Desk relays the request “to the concerned UNEP office,” Nkwenti said.

Much remains in limbo, but there are some signs of responsiveness.

The six-month old appeal?

“Your appeal has been routed to the panel and it is currently being reviewed,” according to Nkwenti.

My two-month-old request for the names of the appeals panel members? Seemingly under consideration.

My five-week-old request for MARS documents? Being processed. Nkwenti said, “Currently Sophie is on mission away from UNEP headquarters. She had indicated that she will provide the requested information as soon at her earliest convenience.”

The right e-mail address for sending in requests?  Still unclear.

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