Cost, cooperation concern Freedom of Information unit

Bureaucratic resistance and the hidden costs of open records requirements are two areas of concern for those attempting to implement the Cayman Islands’ Freedom of Information Law.

‘Insufficient budget’ and ‘resistance to change to a culture of openness’ are listed in a government draft implementation plan as two risks inherent in the FOI law as approved by the Legislative Assembly earlier this year.

The law is expected to take effect in January 2009, after government agencies are trained in how to respond to requests for information from the public.

‘Freedom of Information is…a very abstract concept to most people in the civil service,’ the draft plan states as part of its analysis of the challenges facing open records access in Cayman.

The current budget provides $1.2 million for the FOI Unit and the Information Commissioner’s office, but that funding may not include expenses such as hiring of information managers for various government departments, the purchase of new computer software systems, and potential litigation costs.

According to legal expert Laura Neuman of the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, this is a critical juncture in the success or failure of Cayman’s move toward open government.

‘Implementation is the greatest challenge to government (with FOI laws),’ Ms Neuman said. ‘Increasingly, we’re seeing a problem in the actual use of these laws after they’ve been passed.’

Various staff training and ‘sensitisation’ courses are being planned for everyone who will be involved in the FOI process, from chief officers to front-desk staff. The bulk of that training will take place next year.

Government officials have previously stated that FOI will be implemented using current staff and that it would not have a significant impact on manpower levels needed in the civil service. However, the draft plan notes that some public authorities may require information managers with specific training and skills, making it likely some new positions would be needed.

Also, the draft plan proposes acquiring a centralised computer system which would allow all e-mailed requests for information to be sent to one address, and then distributed to the various departments. Not all public agencies currently have an internet presence or access to the government intranet system.

The central request process would only exist for emailed open records submissions. Faxes or letters must be addressed to the particular government department from which the person is seeking information.

Under the FOI Law, anyone in Cayman can request records from government departments, government companies or statutory authorities. Private or non-profit agencies that receive some government funding may also be subject to certain requests.

Someone seeking information under FOI would file their request with the information manager of the appropriate agency or department. The information manager would then have up to 30 calendar days to respond to that request.