FOI compliance falls short

| 28/08/2013

(CNS): The latest decision from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) combined with the findings in its latest report show that government departments' compliance with the Freedom of Information law appears to be getting worse. With resources scarce at the ICO and government entities apparently still not recognising that transparency is far cheaper than attempting to cover things up, applicants are still being given the runaround and public servants often appear to be merely paying lip service to the law. In her latest ruling, Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert found that the delays and difficulties at the Child and Family Services Department were “unacceptable”.

The DCFS for the most part did not meet ICO deadlines, they withheld records that should have been released far earlier than they were, and a conflict of interest was identified with the Human Resource Manager and Information Manager (IM) being the same person, forcing the department to appoint a new IM.

Under section 52 of the FOI Law, public authorities must maintain their records in a manner that facilitates timely retrieval and allows them to comply with freedom of information requests. “In this case the responsive records were not promptly and thoroughly identified and provided, and this may have been the case because of poor record keeping,” Dilbert found.

Listing a catalogue of problems associated with what was a very sensitive application, Dilbert said the DCFS handled the process poorly.

According to information which was given to CNS by the applicant who is a former employee of the department, the FOI request was made in pursuit of a much bigger and broader complaint. The applicant is accusing the department of unethical behaviour and pushing her out of a job as a result of false allegations based on records which she has now been able to prove do not exist as aresult of the request.

While Dilbert avoided detailing the complaint in her findings on the appeal, the applicant has gone through an exceptionally long process to not only prove that false allegaions have been made against her, but that there are serious ethical flaws in the way things are being conducted at the department.

In this case, which is Dilbert's 31st appeal, as with many others the information commissioner was forced to deal with a department’s failure to comply with the law in a number of different areas. As is increasingly common with government entities, endless delays in finding and then releasing documents, coupled with poor compliance resulted in a difficult and protracted case.

In her latest quarterly report Dilbert said that many appeals handled by her officer are down to poor procedural handling of requests by public authorities. Although PAs are by law required to conduct a reasonable search for records relevant to a request, and communicate with the applicant to ensure that there are no misunderstandings, the ICO said many public authorities do not take this duty sufficiently seriously.

“It is becoming increasingly commonfor significant numbers of new records to surface after an appeal has been raised and the ICO is in the midst of conducting a pre-hearing investigation, sometimes even after the applicant has repeatedly been assured that no responsive records exist,” she said in the final report for 2012/13.

Although it may be a positive step that a complete search is eventually conducted, even if it is after significant pressure from the ICO, this approach is unfair and inefficient. “It causes significant delays and creates unnecessary and entirely avoidable tensions between Government and applicants,” the commissioner said. She noted that her office is also finding it increasingly difficult to secure the cooperation of some public authorities and civil servants, even at the highest levels, in the context of an appeal.

“While an applicant is by law entitled to reasons why records are being withheld, such an explanation is sometimes not or insufficiently given, and it is not uncommon for full reasons to be delayed until a hearing has commenced,” she observed. “This is not acceptable, fair or legal, and the ICO will not tolerate it,” Dilbert warned. “One of the side effects of this deteriorating approach by some public authorities is the fact that appeals are taking longer to resolve. According to ICO statistics, in 2012-13 it was on average taking almost two months longer for the ICO to resolve an appeal through a hearing than before,” she added.
The commissioner is now scheduled to meet with Deputy Governor Franz Manderson to seek his support in ensuring that Freedom of Information requests are dealt with by public authorities in accordance with the Law.

The commissioner revealed that she will not be renewing her contract at the end of this year as she will be retiring and so the search will soon be on to replace Dilbert, who has been at the helm of the cash strapped but critical office in the reform of government since the FOI law was implemented.

See appeal 31 and latest report below.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    i say fire everyone who works in the Child and Family Services Department and start with a clean slate, and hire Seargents to run it, and stop throwing money away on all those who want to use and abuse the welfare system!  Government supports too much people on welfare who can darn well work hard just like the rest of us can! They are not special over us, we work hard to live, they can just as well work hard for their living too. too much softies in the Department giving away our taxpayer's money to lazy people who want to use and abuse the welfare system!  Make them go get a job!  if they would be courteous, be on time, and show up everyday, i'm sure they could get a job!  no employer wants to hire rude and fasty employees, or those who don't care to show up everyday when depended on to do so.  Problem with this Country is people afraid to step on other people's toes to discipline them with what is true and right, that's what causing so much problems, FEAR NOT! DISCIPLINE THEM! or keep breaking the Government's pocket (our taxpaying dollars) to support them, which choice is best?

    Just as a proper parent discipline's their child, so must the same discipline be carried out in the Child and Family Services Department.  Why should the Child and Family Services Department become a refuge for enabling bad behavior?  Stop wasting the Government's money!  

  2. Anonymous says:

    Rubbish 07.26…CS is completely overstaffed and underworked. This could be done easily with exisiting staff if they bothered to turn up and actually work

  3. Anonymous says:

    They don't want to make information public because then we might see the true level of incompetence, waste and abuse of public money. Simple as that.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear Premier! Why is this happening under your watch? You promised us to make things different so now please deliver on your promise. Perhaps getting rid of a few dead weight top civil will rattle some chains and make the rest toe the line!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Government departments need to get on with the service they are supposed to give the public and not rumbling through past files for what is mostly frivilous FOI requests. This FOI was the worst thing to descend on us….while I am all for transparency the level of wasted time and additional employees to satisfy this is just too much. A proper criteria should be implemented to identify what is a real FOI request and what is just a waste of time and resources…then only the real ones should be passed on to the departments. 

    • Anonymous says:

      Thats Jennifers job! She must set the criteria for FOI.

      Her problem is twofold, first there is a continuing feeling amongst the principal civil service heads that they are there to keep the public from knowing too much, it might be embarrassing to the politician that put them there to reveal.

      Second, there is an endemic lack of diligence in their departments to keep proper records. This second isssue is tolerated by their chiefs because of item one!

      The civil service needs slimming from the top down, I am sure that the middle rankers would relish the chance to step up, and properly managed would have the information for Jennifer, but more important, by kicking out their current leaders, there would be less suspicion, and fewer requests under the FOI act! It is a folly to suggest that departments are wasting their time seeking the information!

    • Anonymous says:

      Not all agencies hire a specific employee to oversee FOI requests. In fact, most government agencies and Statutory Authorities just threw the extra work on specific employees with no compensation for this extra work. It is no surprise to me that requests are not seen as a priority. As a past SA employee who had to go through the training and take on extra work without getting paid, I understand. The entities need to give Information Managers added pay for each request they recieve. Maybe this will help in requests being dealt with in the proper manner.

      • SSM345 says:

        " It is no surprise to me that requests are not seen as a priority. As a past SA employee who had to go through the training and take on extra work without getting paid, I understand. The entities need to give Information Managers added pay for each request they recieve."

        And people wonder why others are promoted and there is anunemployment problem.

        Ever heard of doing extra work and then being rewarded down the line?

    • Anonymous says:

      19.41 you are a complete Muppet…it is precisely because those departments do not do what they are supposed to do, or spend money without the due procedures that FOI is required…it is part of the checks and balances within a proper democracy. The problem here is that it has no teeth, and it needs to be given those teeth. Ms Dilbert is more than capable of refusing frivolous requests if needed.If you try to restrict is, it will lose the value…what is happening now is we are getting a picture of where audit and investigation is needed…in those departments that do not comply..

    • Anonymous says:

      I know that there are a lot of thumbs down on this and I used to be one too but, while some FOI requests are legitimate to the public and are those you see disclosed in the media (mostly related to the actions of government officials and government spending), the majority of them are bizarre and personal to one angry person and some departments have persons employed who spend their entire time researching to satisfy these requests rather than doing the job that they're meant to be doing in the first place – this needs a little fine-tuning because the majority of these requests cause for a waste of time and money. I do think that the FOI has been useful and needs to exist but people don't realize how many petty requests are submitted and the government's filing system isn't exactly organized so they can't be satisfied with a google search. Just imagine the amount of ignorance our country breeds and put that into dozens of queries sent to your office every month that you HAVE to fulfil no matter how ridiculous or time-consuming it is. If these requests are meant to satisfy public knowledge they should be moved up the list, otherwise I don't think our already slow-paced government workers should be spending time investigating why some guy's land in west bay was rezoned 72 years ago instead of processing plans that should be OK'd today to get businesses running NOW!

      • Anonymous says:

        But there are already provisions to refuse to deal with a request if it's vexatious or if it would take an unreasonable amount of resources to try to answer it. Maybe better guidance on what this means would be useful, but the FOI Law already sets out that this is possible.

        • Anonymous says:

          There is a difference between 'vexatious or unreasonable' and 'frivolous'. And you have to prove the former. The later is like art. You know it when you see it, but it doesnt' meet the defination of the former (if the submitter is smart). Plus, you've then wasted time proving that somethign is vexatious (or not) when you could have been dealing witht he more useful question.  – – The problem, of course, is that you can't write an FOI law with too much discretion (to rule out 'frivolous' enquiries) or it wont' work. The problem we have is a good FOI law but a lack of department-level resources (in some departments) to handle the addedd burden of a law the politicans promised wouldn't be burdensome.


          One simple request would be 'please just ask'. If you don't get an answer in a day or two, then send the FoI request. But it takes twice as long to get the information for an FOI request (because of the reporting controls, etc.) than just looking up the answer and sendign it by email. And nothing is more annoying than 'request all documents related to X', which then includes emails, drafts, random notes, etc., often going back years, when the person could have asked 'can you tell me X'. Whereupon you simply pull off teh most recent version of X, maybe write a few lines fo backgroudn for the email, and everyone's happy. If you're still not happy after that, then FOI 'everything'. 


          Of course, this assumes we're nto talking about actual bad examples, like the one that generated the article. Which I'm not trying to defend.

      • Anonymous says:

        how about you lazy ass CS spending your time answering the serious ones and not trying to answer the frivilous ones instead of the other wat around.

        • Anonymous says:

          Because, by law, they all must be treated the same. The CS can't say 'this is frivolous'. Saying that gets your department excoriated by the ICO.

    • Castor says:

      I agree, everything the government does should be secret!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why is it they can't be fired again?

    • Anonymous says:

      Because they are Caymanians.

    • Anonymous says:

      Because the current leadership would lose their vote.  And their families vote.  And their friends vote.  And the vote of everyone who should be fired in the Civil self service.  Pretty much most of them.  Thats why.

  6. Anonymous says:

    thank god for the ppm…..zzzzzzzzzzzzz

  7. Anonymous says:

    Create an obligation to disclose all documents that can be released and this will reduce the need to make request and draw on resources of ICO.

  8. Anonymous says:

    "With resources scarce at the ICO…" Yeah, Yeah we heard it all before. Lets have more civil servants and we can blame it on some law that has nothing to do with it. We have been told that FOI did not create any jobs and add to the Civil Service. Total bullshit.

    • Anonymous says:

      Scarce resources at ICO!  Maybe if  other departments had adequate resources they would not be subjected to harsh criticism about their information responses. 


    • Anonymous says:

      Interesting to see how many troll buttons pressed on this one. The original comment is perfectly reasonable but the worship of Dilbert and her Office is such that people just have kneejerk reactions to any criticism of her.