Info boss urges top civil servants to embrace FOI

| 29/09/2011

(CNS): Although there is now more support in government for the Freedom of Information law the information commissioner has said there is a need for more senior civil servants to embrace the law and support their information managers. Speaking at a special presentation marking international Right to Know Day, Wednesday, Jennifer Dilbert said it was time that all public authorities took the issue on board and “get with the programme” as FOI was here to stay. She commended some authorities for the way they had begun to embrace the concept of making information accessible in particular the HSA.

Dilbert also revealed that three years on the people had really embraced the legislation and were exercising their right to know. This public engagement with the law by was confirmed in figures revealed by Dilbert’s deputy Jan Liebaers who said on a per capita basis Cayman made some of the highest number of requests in the world.

While that might be a good thing on the one hand as people were clearly exercising their right under the law, on the other hand they might be using the law so much because not enough information is in the public domain.

In a report created for Right to Know week Liebears presented the statistics so far based on the information logged into the government’s tracking system known as JADE. He said however, that the information is not always logged in, or logged correctly by information managers so the figures he had been able to put together were an underestimation of the number of requests that have actually been made.

He said at least 1795 requests have been made since the law came into effect in January 2009. After an initial early surge of applications in the first few months of the law’s implementation as people sought to access information they may have wanted for sometime or requested important personal information, requests have stabilized.

Although applicants are anonymous Liebaers said email addresses reveal that FOI frequent flyers are the press, community activists and lawyers. Government expenditure, minutes of board meetings and personal information are the most frequent types of requests made. Immigration, the police, legal affairs and the HSA are the four public authorities who have dealt with the highest number of FOI applications.  Since the law was implemented Immigration has dealt with 290 requests.

Only 37% of all FOI requests resulted in full disclosure. Liebaers statistics show that a further 13% have been granted in part, in more than a quarter of cases the public authorities applied an exemption or an exclusion in 12% of cases no records were found, 1% were deferred and the remaining 10 percent were closed administratively.

Of the fifteen hearings that have come before the commissioner seven have gone in favour of the public authority and five in favour of the applicant, while two resulted in partial disclosure and one was withdrawn by the applicant.  

During the presentation Dilbert said the law was working and it was effective from both sides as it protected sensitive information when necessary and allowed public access when it wasn’t. She urged senior civil servants to embrace the law and support their information managers as she said the main complaint from them was they didn’t always get the support they need or access to the records to do their job. Dilbert warned that the law requires IMs to be given the resources and support they need.

She said that the ICO had submitted its recommendations to fine tune the law to the legislative review committee and was now waiting on their response. She said progress on the review of the law was slower than she liked but she believed that the committee were addressingthe issue soon.
Governor Duncan Taylor also offered his support for the law at the presentation and said he believed it made civil servants more responsible and thoughtful about spending public money when they knew the figures could be made public.

He told civil servants to think when they spent money on travel or a conference how would it look when it was written about in the media.  He called it the “Daily Mail” test after the well known UK daily newspaper. In Cayman he said civil servants could apply the “Compass or CNS” test to help them think sensibly about what they were doing.  “There is nothing like knowing that it is going to be public,” to make people be more reasonable and spend money legitimately, the governor said. “When you are spending money on a trip would you feel comfortable with it in the news?”

He spoke about the need to proactively make as much information as possible public on government websites as the more information was available the fewer questions there would be. Taylor revealed that he would be posting the details of the running cost for Government House, the governor’s residence on Seven Mile Beach, on the governor’s office website as he said people should know how much was spent by the governor entertaining or on electricity.

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  1. How? says:

    Where does one get information on how legislation is approved?  Who does one address the FOI to?  Which department?

  2. Anonymous says:

    A different topic, but consumers could use a "Better Business Bureau" to record merchant and vendor complaints and report extortionate billing practices.  I've noticed a variety of abnormalities in my bills recently…who is the consumer advocate?  Who do you call?!?

    • Include this! says:

      We should include Cayman Enterprise City in this one as once they start the prices on rent they will have no competition as the tenants have to rent exclusively from them in order to obtain the concessions.  How can we complain in advance as a prospective tenant?!