Exercise your right to know

| 27/09/2009

By now most of you have heard the repeated mantra that: Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation is essential to any democratic society in that it promotes transparency and accountability of a government to its people, who through the law now have a right of access to information… Yeah… OK… sure that sounds good, but what does it really mean?

Respectfully, FOI is not just another act of the Legislature it is much more complex. Not complex in the sense of being difficult to interpret, but rather in the sense that it is not capable of being wholly reduced to a simple definition or repealable law. Instead, try seeing FOI as a lofty politico-philosophy, which allows examination of the general array of government practices that benefit the country, which is the essential underpinning of good governance.

This allows the electorate to be informed and if necessary hold firm-reign on their government. In turn the government is compelled to be efficient by implementing and adhering to good record keeping practices, exercising fiscal prudence, and demonstrate general appreciation for human rights. No doubt we all in this time of economicuncertainty are adamant about the need to ensure that we manage our finances properly. These standards should exist in all organized democratic societies whether that society has FOI legislation, some other open government policy or no formal requirement at all.

Government, as stewards of the country’s resources, are obliged to provide the people with records they request, or at least provide full legal and written reasoning for why those records cannot be provided. It is therefore the responsibility of the public to make request in order to make transparency work.
Surely like myself, advocates of FOI are happy that such legislation has been enacted in Cayman. However, the fact that such legislation has been enacted does not mean that Government automatically becomes transparent.

There is some evidence (based on the statistics outlined in the reports produced by the FOI Unit) that the public is using the law to obtain real information which is useful, practical and capable of helping people develop an informed opinion. However, most of the requests that have provoked dialogue among the general populous are the few made by individuals with ties to the media. If we as a people expect to reap the full benefits of the law we must actively and aggressively ‘Exercise our Right to Know’, and be willing to appeal our requests to the Information Commissioner if we are not satisfied with the response from the public authorities. Whether our governments have historically operated under strict secrecy is for you to decide, but it does not change the fact that we now have a powerful tool at our disposal, which is also confirmed in our new Constitution.

The Cayman Islands is experiencing cultural change in many areas. New horizons in respect to our international status, political representation, finance, immigration and education system are inevitable. Included at the forefront of these changes is the requirement for open-governance through Freedom of Information. This is also incidentally what we must use to be better informed on how our representatives navigate us through these turbulent times.

A recognized and appreciated move towards cultural change brought in by the FOI Law is the strong requirement for protection of Whistleblowers, allowance of anonymity and procedural fairness. Within the meaning of the FOI Law there is a duty imposed on Public Authorities to assist applicants wherever possible, especially if it is with helping to properly articulate their requests. The oft-repeated comments in regards to lack of assistance and fear of reprisal can now become a thing of the past. Ultimately FOI provides new rules on the relationship between citizen and state.

We all hope to one day be able to say that the culture of secrecy surrounding government operations, in reality, no longer exists; and the fact that the people of this country have taken up the mantle to ensure transparency and good governance has served to ensure that. With proper use, it will be this country’s residents who determine whether the law is working and how long it will take for this cultural change to be realised.

Only an informed people can properly determine whether the Government is doing its job… only if you ‘Exercise Your Right To Know’.

Sonji Myles is the Intake Analyst for the Information Commissioner’s Office

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  1. FOI Funding says:

    The FoI office should be funded from the budgets of other departments by reference to the number of requests made of information from that department.  It would encourage proactive openness of government.  I know of certain departments’ FOI officers who see their job as stopping information getting out, coming as they do from a culture fo secrecy for many years.  Let us introduce som incentives for our government to be open – budgetary impact is a good start.

  2. Dennie Warren Jr. says:

    FOI is absolutely necessary to good government. Period!

  3. Anonymouse says:

    FOI experience mixed…

    I have made 3 requests, one to CIMA and 2 to find out the total cost of the Turtle Farm and Pedro, estimated at over $100 million in total, when adding yearly losses to the ridiculously high building costs…

    So far, only one satisfactory reply was received about Pedro and I’m still waiting for an answer to my last e-mail requesting a status report…

    Typical overpaid and underperforming Civil Servants, I guess…

    However, both the OCC and FOI are necessary, no matter the cost. The OCC performed very efficiently under its previous leader on one complaint I made concerning the understatement of inflation in government statistics…

    I hope the FOI can get eventually up to speed and match that performance…

    • Anonymous says:

      The OCC worked very well under Mr. Epp.  But that was its downfall.  The Government (PPM) and Civil Servants treated negative findings with contempt.  Is being unable to take criticism becoming a national trait?

      • Anonymous says:

        One could certainly conclude that to be the case when you see the Civil Servant below trying to defend against every post and comment made

        • Anonymous says:

          Nope, private sector, actually. But I do support what I deem important offices (and laws) in the civil service. I also support cutting driftwood loose, I just don’t feel this meets that criteria in any sense of it. On my list of priorities (and yours obviously differ), the OCC and ICO, FOI unit and the like deserve to be funded,especially given the work they do with the smaller staffs they have. But please don’t assume just because I support parts of the civil service that I must be a part of it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    There is a saying which goes "a fisherman never says his own fish stink" call it what you like, to me, this is yet another attempt to try and convince us that we need to have folks employed and spend over a million dollars a year to do something which we’ve managed to survive without for decades.

    This is one of the fundamental reasons why our finances are in the state they are now, Cayman is too busy trying to keep up with the "Jones". Everything we go abroad and see people doing, we run home and try to do it here too without much thought as to its applicability, costs or benefits.

    Good try, but as far as I am concerned, the FOI Unit is a big waste of valuable Government resources.

    • Ali Gator says:

      Good comment….

      ."In turnthe government is compelled to be efficient by implementing and adhering to good record keeping practices, exercising fiscal prudence, and demonstrate general appreciation for human rights."

      Just what does this actually mean…the MLA’s are in no way accountable under law, are not compelled in any way to be effecient, most don’t even keep reccords "aka Clifford at al" and are not forced to do so (conveniently).

      Exercise fiscal prudence…what utter rubbish…we wouldn’t be in this mess if they had

      Human rights…they wouldn’t recognise these if they bit them on the #rse!

      So the end result is that it makes no difference to any inhabitant of these islands if we have the expensive luxury of "freedom of information", this was a smoke screen designed to keep Andrea Dilbert and a few government employees well paid and to keep the media distracted

      It is a complete wast of money and protects nobody except government from the populace!!!

      • Anonymous says:

        It "protects nobody except government from the populace"? Do you even know what freedom of information does?

        • Ali Gator says:

          We all know exactly what it does not do and thats offer the population the right to open government.

          • Croc O'Dile says:

            are you referring to just cayman? you sound like you are talking about FOI legislation in general. it has worked very well in other countries. it’s not even a year old here and already it’s at least opened up some interesting information that wasn’t available otherwise (higher officials’ exact salaries, important statistics, expenditures). give it time, don’t be so jaded!

    • Anonymous says:

      You are clearly misinformed on multiple levels. Firstly, the notion we "survived" without it is absolute rubbish. Have you seen the state we’re in now? How many shady deals have been made in the past with private contractors/investors that put money straight into politicians’ pockets without really helping anyone? Unilateral decisions that have kept the public in the dark? The good ole boys club hasn’t done anyone but a few ole boys any good, and I certainly wouldn’t call that surviving. How about the complacency everyone claims in the ranks of the civil service? Consultants with insanely high fees who are brought in anyway because they know a friend of a friend? You’re damn right our fish stink, and if used properly this law will help to instigate change. Or perhaps you’ve been the recipient of some of the institutionalised corruption in the past, and don’t want that gravy train to run out… Secondly, there are two offices related to FOI, and the total number working in the one you’ve directly criticised is 3 (clearly a huuuge waste of resources there, bubbo). In the other, the ICO, just 6. Considering the amount of work both offices do to try and bring about a change in the way we run government and the attitude within it (your post being indicative of the ignorant obstacles still to overcome), I’d say they’re well worth their small costs of operation. Perhaps before you post in the future, you’ll do a little research on the topic and actually have something informed to say.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not even going to address all the baseless points you’ve tried to make above. I’ll just ask these questions:

        Did FOI stop the security contract at the Courts the other day?

        Will FOI stop further contracts from being issued?

        Will it prevent anyone from signing a shady deal with another party?

        You cannot guarantee me that the FOI will stop any of this or prevent our country from loosing monies made from shady deals.

        However, what I can guarantee you, is your two units will cost the people of the Cayman Islands over a million dollars in this financial year alone. 

        Now defend that, you talk about research, i’ve done the research buddy, and I can assure you that I know more about it than you do.

        • Anonymous says:

          Nope, can’t guarantee it WILL stop any of the above, though there’s a lot better chance of shady deals being brought to light and appropriately dealt with with FOI than without. I believe the purpose is to provide avenues of accountability to the public backed by law, as opposed to the situation prior to implementation when government could withhold or deny access to records with far greater impunity. Is FOI a magic bullet, absolutely not. Does it allow for better accountability in government? Yes. That alone is worth the tiny fraction of a percentage of the overall government budget allocated to these offices. As for your obsession with the million dollars, I find it laughable you think this isn’t a worthy amount of money to spend relative to the ability of this law to allow the public to be more informed of how the government is operating and criticise as such (as you are doing, though I hope their efforts are to far better, and more meaningful ends). Since you assure me you know so much, far more than I do apparently, please, pray tell, with your vast knowledge, what is the percentage of their operating budgets relative to the overall government expenditure? 0.15%? Less than that? Now let’s put it in private budgetary terms. Average per capita income is around what, $52,000 (I’m finding quotes of somewhere between $48k and $54k, depending on the source)? Their budgets represent in those terms a whopping $78, if even that, per year. The equivalent of the average person spending $1.50 a week. Defend it? I don’t have to, it’s a bargain for what it does, by any standards! 

          And by the way, it’s "losing," not "loosing." And you should really have a period after an imperative command like "Now defend that." Buddy.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yeah well, to the previous posters point, the Auditor General has also brought many shady deals to light, that didn’t result in any refunds or repaired any damages.

            Hindsight is always 20/20, from an economical stand point one must always consider the costs and benefits associated with Government programs. Everyone complains about big Government and the cost of the Civil Service, if this Unit does in fact cost a million dollars per year to run, I would agree that it is not the best use of the public’s funds.

            If one looks at the 2008/9 Annual Plans and Estimates, for a million dollars last year, the Government was able to help over 400 people with poor relief vouchers, 25 young parents with temporary financial assistance, 26 people with after school care and emergency relief payment, provide a scholarship for Miss Cayman, provided financial assistance to 15 churches and other non-governmental organizations, added street lights in little cayman and cayman brac, in the end, they still had 100,000 left over.

            If you ask me, I would prefer to have my million dollars spent really helping the populace and the community in a meaningful tangible manner than pay for yet another Government Department to spend all day reading blogs.

            Someone should do an FOI request for the TRS report of the staff working in FOI so we can get a sense of what the million dollars is spent on. Perhaps it may enlighten and educate us.

            • Croc O'Dile says:

              Anyone else enjoying that the person lambasting FOI then calls for an FOI request? If you’re so concerned about whether or not BOTH offices are using their budgets wisely (for once, people, get it right that this magical million dollars isn’t going to just one office), make the FOI request yourself. You can do it anonymously, with the same impunity you use on this forum. And when you do, enjoy the irony that this supposed waste of money enables you to find out if your criticism has merit, or, as is most likely the case, if you’re full of hot air.

              As for all the services provided for a million dollars, it’s cute and all to cite these projects, but we both know full well you could have listed MLA travel expenses, or a fraction of the money sunk into the huge black holes of Boatswains or Pedro. It’s a fallacious dichotomy you’ve presented and you know it!

            • Mozzie Fodder says:

              Why is Goverment handing out money to churches?

  5. Concerned Reader says:

    Thought provoking.

    However, in the USA it is understood that freedom of speech isn’t protected when you violate another person’s freedoms because of each other having different opinions, viewpoints, religious, nationality differences doesn’t give a person the right to be disrespectful toward another person of color, nationality or gender.

    • Anonymous says:

      I imagine you meant for this to be posted on the article about the Governor’s blog? It’s the only way I can make sense of what you wrote, as it’s not relavent to the subject, or content, of this viewpoint article.

  6. Anonymous says:

    While major steps have been taken toward the objectives of FOI legislation, I think two major hurdles remain for this law to have real meaning in the relationship between the public and the government that serves them. The first you have tried to focus on – that of public awareness and participation. I’m sure your office will be making greater efforts in the future toward this endeavour. The other major hurdle is the discouraging lack of support from some major public figures. I contend that some of the lack of ethusiasm by Information Managers in dealing with certain requests (speaking from experience here) is largely a result of a disparaging attitude from those higher up the chain toward FOI legislation. Wasn’t it just recently McKeeva Bush mused at a public meeting that if cuts are made, it might be likely that offices like the CCO and ICO could be among the first affected? How are government officials facing requests supposed to treat that request with the importance and respect it deserves when the LOGB (and others) have consistently shown disdain for this particular law? Information Managers seem well trained in some offices (again, from personal experience), which leads me to believe that, aside from a bad apple or two, they have all been well trained. So if the issue isn’t with their training, it seems to me their less than receptive manner is a reflection of the attitude of those above them. There needs to be more public buy-in to FOI legislation by the highest officials in government. Otherwise the public may lose confidence in the law, which will diminish participation and run contrary to your lofty goals. I suggest, therefore, that your office also focus their energies there, as well as on improving awareness and participation. It’s only when these two hurdles are passed that greater gains in accountability and transparency will occur.

    Just my thoughts following what I’ve experienced in utilising my ability to request records under the FOI law.

  7. Joe Average says:

    Thank you for this Ms. Myles.  It makes tremendous sense.  As we can’t operate or particpate properly without being informed. 

    I think you’ll also find there is still some degree of doubt in the public’s mind if a request is followed through on an anonymous basis. Not being a very long term resident, I gather this has something to do with repercussions that have taken place in the past.  Or they were perceived that way.   It also takes some knowledge to know exactly what to request in order to follow through with an enquiry. Perhaps the FOI office could make a list available on CNS on what information can be made available?  And the procedures in place to maintain anonominity.  Because many of us are ex-pats and that is tenuous at best… that is quite crucial for us.  Both of these would help us greatly in our discussions and our seeking facts.