Government buy-in and public participation needed

| 21/09/2010

Coming from a country where FOI has been in place for over a decade provides me with a unique vantage point from which to observe how Cayman is implementing the law, coping with new responsibilities and openness and how the public is embracing (or not embracing) these new rights.

The two most prominent points that come to mind as I think about writing this article are government “buy in” and public participation, both of which are necessary for the law to work properly and be meaningful.

What do I mean by government buy in? I mean a genuine effort by those who run the show to provide support for FOI processes, respect the timelines prescribed in the law and respond as openly and completely as possible to requests no matter who has made them and no matter the perceived reasons for the request. During my time here I have seen a dedicated commitment to accomplishing the goals of the law from a large number of civil servants. In some other cases, unfortunately, I have also seen a good amount of apathy from a small group of others who hold key positions within government. It is disheartening to see this when they are the ones that should be champions of the law rather than neutral or, in some cases, negative. Now, this is not to say that Cayman is unique in these attitudes as I have experienced similar trains of thought back home. The uniqueness here, I think, is the fact that some of the negative attitudes come from some of the highest places in government and in such a small community this can have serious ramifications on the acceptance and continued use of something as potentially controversial as FOI.

The other piece of the puzzle which has to be in place for this system to work, and with which I have seen and heard some issues, is public participation. So far, I believe the trend has been that the media and a few savvy, interested members of the public have been responsible for making a large number of the requests so far. This is evidenced by the news stories coming out in the media and the appeals that have been received by the ICO. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to all the public authorities as I know that a large number of separate individuals have requested their files from the Immigration Department. For other public authorities, however, the trend that a few are responsible for the most requests seems to stand firm. While the media does have the responsibility of conducting investigative journalism and informing the public of what they find, the public should not solely rely on them to keep the government on its toes.

I know there is still a large number of people that know little or nothing about FOI. While it is true that some people will just never be interested in the topic, I get the sense that many are at times reluctant to learn about or use the FOI system in fear that they may be singled out. A fear of repercussions if they do not make their requests anonymously may in some cases be well founded. Anonymity is especially important in a community as small as the Cayman Islands and efforts should be taken not to erode this protection or an increase in public participation may never be possible. People have a right to know what their government is doing. The culture has to change so that questioning the government and the answering of those questions should be the norm rather than the exception.

Of course change does not take place overnight. In a short period of time the government has been forced to at least partially open its doors to a level of public scrutiny that it never experienced before. For some this scrutiny can come across as threatening and, in a sense, unnatural. Change will take time. While I have picked on perhaps a couple of the more negative aspects of the Cayman FOI arena it does not mean that I have not seen other very promising aspects as well, especially from some of the very hard working Information Managers whose job it is to keep the FOI system running. The cultural change will be gradual and over time, hopefully, FOI will become more mainstream. Inevitably there will be dissenters and people that will say FOI is too much work and too costly. These people’s voices will fade, believe me. I just hope the cultural change will come before any possible negative legislative changes can be made, such as the inability to make anonymous requests or an exorbitant increase in fees, which are within the government’s power to make happen.

 

Cory Martinson is a former appeals and policy analyst with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)

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Category: Viewpoint

Comments (3)

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  1. Joe Average says:

    Thank you Mr. Martinson.  It is about time the public embraced the mechanism of freedom of information and I hope they will in the future.  Let’s ponder that term for a moment:  Freedom Of Information.  It has always seemed to me that FOI shouldn’t be necessary in a free and open democracy. Wishful thinking on my part I’m afraid but what FOI accomplishes in reality is to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    It is far too easy for our elected representatives to make vague statements about "plans" and "putting together reports" or "exploring options".  These are included in the entire wardrobe of what we assume is some form of policy on their part.  Once these statements are distributed: we enter the fog. Many believe, that if the policy or statement were correct, we would at some point hear about it again.  But more often than not they later appear to have been sound bites used to pacify, or to answer a question, without answering it.  How often is that tactic used, too often. Without any further information then the workable solution is to use an FOI request.

    This device can keep individuals making statements accountable, and over a period of time, if FOI is used properly, we get to a point where we can believe what we’ve heard.  As things progress the person making the statement is also more careful about their correctness and apt not to make them out of expediency rather than having carefully thought it out.  Learning how to answer questions properly is another benefit.  In other words, the use of FOI can be seen as a training program in democracy.. for both the public and their elected representatives.  All involved can learn from it, and at the same time.  The public can learn how to use it to clarify.  And elected representatives will learn that the public will.

  2. nauticalone says:

    Very well written. And so very true, as we have heard the Premier (of all people) so against FOI. Instead, someone at his level should be a champion for the people’s right to ask and know the doings of Govt.

  3. McKeewa says:

    Gov’t buy-in? You shut up!