FOI boss calls for government support

| 21/03/2011

(CNS): The head of the Freedom of Information Office has chastised the Cayman Islands government for not supporting her agency’s efforts to improve public-sector transparency as provided under the FOI Law. Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert spoke of her struggle to achieve this support during last week’s UCCI’s leadership conference. Dilbert said her office is “struggling to achieve” official support, while working to educate the public on the various means of access to information and encourage people to use the law. “There has to be a political and bureaucratic willingness to embrace a culture of openness and proactive disclosure,” she told the packed room at a seminar on the subject of Media, Freedom of Information and Governance.

The seminar was on the second day of the conference, which included panels on topics ranging from education issues to the Public Management and Finance Law to e-governance to empowering women.

In her session Dilbert addressed her concerns with government’s apparent reluctance to embrace FOI at a seminar on Media, Freedom of Information and Governance, saying her office is “struggling to achieve” official support, while working to educate the public on the various means of access to information and encourage people to use the law..

“It’s not good enough for government to honour the Freedom of Information Law in principle, while limiting its potential in practice by not providing the infrastructure necessary to comply with the law. My struggle is to make sure that we get what we need to enforce the law,” she said.

Since the FOI Law came into effect 5 January 2009 through to the end of 2010, Dilbert said 1,424 requests for information had been filed, “which is not bad for a small place. We don’t know whether more is success. In a lot of cases, if you think about it, more requests doesn’t necessarily mean success; less requests can mean success because what we are trying to do is to get government to put information out there.”

Citing some success with public-sector agencies putting minutes of their meetings on their websites voluntarily, she added that the “threat, hopefully, of my office standing over you is that public authorities are thinking a little bit more about their actions because they know that there is going to be more transparency and more accountability, and that really is what the law is all about.”

Dilbert also pointed out that, while the Information Commissioner’s office is supposed to be independent, it is funded by government, so it is difficult to be fully independent.

“I do fall under too many of the government’s procedures and policies and moratoriums and budget issues and time-recording issues. These are things that affect the independence of my office. It’s a constant struggle for me to assert that independence and say to government, ‘I am following this law. This is what I’m doing and I’m not going to stop doing it …’”

She called for across-the-board political and public-sector recognition of the importance of access to information. “There also needs to be a culture change across the Cayman Islands. We need buy-in by senior civil servants and politicians. Full disclosure of information to the public about government activities means more accountability within government, which should ultimately lead to a more efficient and effective public service.”

Dilbert pointed out that conditioning officials to FOI would result in a faster response to requests for information. “FOI is like a muscle; if you don’t use it, it gets weak,” she said, adding, “Each time a requester wins an FOI battle, it paves the way for everyone who follows.”

Other participants in the panel included former Government Information Service head Pat Ebanks, who spoke about the evolution of GIS and balancing the need to inform the public with its responsibility to the government.

“(Government) information people are civil servants and they are paid to work for the people, to serve the people. I’ve always felt that we had a responsibility not just to government but to the people. I feel that that is the ideal position that we need to take in GIS,” Ebanks said.

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  1. nauticalone says:

    With the Premier’s negative attitude towards his not wanting to comply with FOI, he actually empowers other Civil Servants to follow his example.

    Until we have laws with real teeth (including fines, demotions, more) then many CS will continue to resist the change that ethical institutions such as FOI and Human Rights call for.

  2. sooth sayer says:

    This lady has more spuds than all the rest of the ‘leaders’ put together. What an inspiration to all of us as to how it should be done.

  3. McCarron McLaughlin - a little confused says:

    We are now living in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century and if I want to see a copy of the “Register of Interest” for the elected folks at the LA, I have make an appointment to see the clerk of the assembly who will then have the sergeant at arms watch me while I inspect it, furthermore I can’t get a copy if I want one.

    What is so secret about this register of Interest that it can’t be published online? Aren’t these members of LA not elected by the public?

    May I remind everyone of our mother country the UK which has this information readily available online of every elected Member of Parliament.

    See the following website if in doubt –

    I ask the question again why is this public information not published on the LA website, is it because if made public online the public may be able to connect some missing dots of all the corruption and omissions that are “obviously” not included in the register.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As a fellow civil servant who respects Mrs Dilbert’s work, I am nonetheless puzzled as to how her independence is affected by her having to observe the same procedures as the rest of us with regard to “moratoriums, budget issues and time-recording issues”. I just don’t see that.

  5. Been there, done it.... says:

    The majority of civil servants and politicians are, whatever they may say, scared spitless of anything that might give the public access to what they are actually doing behind the facade of public service.

    The concept of human rights, in that it allows ordinary members of the public to challenge their decisions, also makes many of them very nervous.

    Keep rocking the boat Ms Dilbert, sooner or later the people you are talking about will start to fall (or be pushed) overboard.