Identity Irrelevant

| 28/09/2010

By now, the term ‘FOI’ is commonly used in Cayman and I would expect that the average person has a basic understanding of the law as it seems to be behind some of the more news worthy events of the past 21 months.So how much has been spent on security for current and past members of the Legislative Assembly?

It is true that FOI, both here and abroad, has helped to shed light on issues (and sometimes scandals) such as government spending and decisions. But a more fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how a law founded on promoting openness and transparency can also protect the true identify of a requestor? The answer is relatively simply – it has to.

Cayman is small. And while it is certainly charming to live in such a close knit community, the reality is that everybody ‘knows your business’. We have all participated in this phenomenon at some point, whether by sharing gossip heard on the marl road or through witnessing events in person. Information in Cayman runs like the Nile (yes, I do mean the river in Africa).

Now, one might ask what local gossip has to do with Freedom of Information, but the correlation is easy. It boils down to fear.

FOI requests are for records that are, for the most part, already owed to the people. The requestor’s identity should therefore be irrelevant. The anonymity afforded in the FOI Law was meant to ensure people were free to ask for any record without the fear of reprimand.

If all FOI requestors were required to prove their identity, the law might simply fail. Caymanians would cease to make requests if they thought that it could be used against them. Expatriates would stop requesting records for fear of being labeled ’anti-Cayman’. Requests would taper off and the veil of Government secrecy would again cover our beautiful Islands.

Think this sounds a bit rash? Think again. Information is a powerful thing. Using it for good is altruistic. Unfortunately, misinformation can change lives. FOI gives us access to the truth.

Fear drives us in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a primal sense of fear when faced with the unknown. Other times fear can be completely irrational. Regardless, the right to remain anonymous is set out in the Law. While this point could, and may very soon be debated as the law is under review, I think the fundamental right to remain anonymous is needed.

Don’t be afraid. The Government is accountable to you. So keep asking.

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Category: Viewpoint

Comments (6)

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  1. NEMO says:

    I think we have to get to some reason and logic here with FOI. It has become a “child in a candy shop scenario”.

    It is clear that many of the requests that have been made public to date really have little effect when the information has been made public. Many cases one says “so what” or “interesting, sorta of” or “I didn’t know that, hmmm”……While it is true that ‘Transparency’ is the buzz word of the year, I think everyone should really only ask for information that is really relevant to their case. Merely asking for asking sake is ultimately a big waste of our common resources.

    It is obvious that some requests have had the effect of having the government stop what they were doing to actually generate the information requested. Not sure if everyone knows that…or maybe that IS the plan.

    I know that in a few years from now, a few more budgets where FOI starts to show up, we will be having the same discussion about FOI as we now have about PMFL. is it too expensive to keep?…Is the FOI ‘Department’ merely creating work for itself?

    I think that some rules of engagement needs to be created in this situation.

    ps: I am actually thinking of asking a FOI request on how many FOI requests Government has received, broken down by Date, Ministry, size, response time and by cartoon character but I cannot get the urge for them to spend that money and time. Folks & Press, lets be reasonable here, please….you and I have to pay for every request we make…use them wisely and when in need less we loose them completely.

    • MARLIN says:

      NEMO,

      I completely agree that we all need to be responsible with information.  What I do not agree with are some of the other blanket assumptions you have made.

      You cannot possibly know that the FOI requests made to date have had "little effect".  Yes, some people may read about FOI requests in the media and respond with "so what" or that was "sorta interesting".  However the vast amount of FOI requests ( which I believe total over 1000) have been for all kinds of other information and records.  What is reported in the media represents a mere fraction of what people are asking for.  

      FOI is alive and well all over the world.  Once the initial growing pains have subsided and resistance has lessened, it will be an important and powerful tool for the people of Cayman.   I do agree that making requests only for the sake of making them is foulish and sometimes irresponsible.  Use the information.  Make government more accountable for their actions and decisions.  Get involved.  That is what FOI is meant to promote.

      Oh, and government does not have to "generate information" to respond to requests.  It only has to provide records that already exist.

      As for your proposed request…make it!  I don’t know about the cartoon characters, but I understand that the other information is collected in their database.  That kind of request should be as easy as "point, click and print"?

  2. Anonymous says:

    However, I think FOI request that stops government workers from doing their jobs to instead digging up files, researching, and tediously counting records just to answer the request, should mandatory upon the department or government sector to answer within a given time, only when the sector or department has the funds and the enough resources to answer the request – so that the public service is not slowed down because of it. 

    It appears to me that Jennifer and her team are oblivious to the repercussions of their mandatory answer-to-request which they love to throw on the government. There needs to be a balance of control somewhere. I can only see the public complaining how government service has been effected by their own internal digging.  

    So there is alot of work to be done!

    Suppose I am an MLA minister and all of a sudden some MICKEY MOUSE don’t know who, decides to make an FOI request on how much phone calls I as a minister made for my last 3 years in office. Now I am a busy minister – I have no time or resource to be counting calls or trying to find records of the amount of work-related phone calls I have made. Certainly, the calls must be differientiated from my personal calls. Certainly, this must include the several phones and cell phones I have been using. The FOI law demands I comply with their request within a given time. So what do I do as a Minister? I have the country’s business and priorities as most impotant.

    Situations like this, I think is what adds to the governmental beaurocracy of our system.

    CNS: According to the FOI law, a public authority is not required to comply with a request if it would unreasonably divert its resources, which covers the improbable scenario you outlined above. It is far more likely that someone would ask how much the minister has spent on phone calls, which is a simple matter of looking at the phone bills. Expenses claimed by public servants, and especially by ministers, should be public knowledge so that  no one is tempted to treat the public purse like a personal ATM. Like that would ever happen!

    • Anonymous says:

      If I may add to the observations of CNS, FOI is about access to records that already exists, it has nothing to do with creating records.

      In the example quoted, a copy of the Ministers phone bill (with the last four digits of the dialed numbers redacted) would be sufficient to meet the request and could be done in less than an hour.

    • true dat says:

      What a perfect post to show that  the FOI law is working and has shown that the (busy?) ministers are not.  Now what?  Anything?  Nothing?  FOI has shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Government is corrupt, incompetent, overly expensive, and not fit to lead.  Now what?  The people of Cayman have been shown the truth.  What are they going to do about it.

       

      What they have been taught to do for many generations.