Bracing for FOI

The Cayman Islands government is now in the process of training civil servants for something they’ve never been required to do before…provide public records to people asking for them.

Cayman’s new Freedom of Information Law (2007) is set to take effect in January, and some government employees fear the work will soon be piling up on their desks.

FOI Policy Analyst Natasha Bodden recently assured civil servants at a public meeting that the process ‘wouldn’t be as miserable as everyone seems to think it will be.’

‘Most of the information is being released already,’ Ms Bodden said.

US consultant Laura Neuman of the Carter Center in Atlanta has previously advised government policy-makers that freedom of information laws, if managed correctly, will help reduce bureaucracy and minimise discretion of public servants who, under the current system, can withhold records from people they simply don’t like.

The civil service Declaration of Secrecy also provides certain penalties for government workers who improperly reveal documents and records, including the loss of their jobs.

An 18 March meeting of more than 100 civil servants brought some scepticism about whether FOI would reduce the workload.

‘They made the same comment when FMI (Financial Management Initiative) was introduced,’ said one civil servant at the meeting. ‘I’m sure everyone here can say otherwise.’

The FMI was introduced by the current government as a way to bring more accountability to the public budgeting process. It requires various government departments and portfolios to submit bills to their ministries for services rendered. The ministries are allowed to withhold that funding if the services have not been adequately provided.

Aside from concerns about additional work, many more civil servants wondered whether certain documents should be released under the FOI Law.

One Planning Department employee asked if they would be allowed to release the floor plans or blue prints for individual houses. The employee said releasing that information could reveal trade secrets used by architects or developers. It could also allow someone who hadn’t paid for the design to use it for free.

‘It may create some problems even with life and safety,’ the planning employee said.

The FOI Law forbids government information managers from asking people why they are requesting specific records.

Ms Bodden said the initial decision about releasing documents would be made by the information manager. That decision can be appealed to officials of the relevant government ministry and to the Information Commissioner. If either party involved in the records request disagrees with the commissioner’s final ruling, the case can be appealed in court.

The information manager as envisioned by government would be a ‘fairly senior decision-maker’ within the public authority. The Information Commissioner’s position has been created but no one has been named to fill that post.

FOI cost

Other civil servants at the 18 March meeting asked whether any extra funding would provided in the next budget year to defray the costs of Freedom of Information.

‘My 2008/09 budget is just about done and there’s nothing in there for FOI,’ one civil servant said.

The government’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, so FOI will take effect in the upcoming spending plan which the Cayman Islands’ government must approve by June 30.

Government put aside $1.2 million in the current budget for freedom of information initiatives but most of that money includes the budget for the FOI Coordinator’s office and training initiatives. Some money was also set aside for the Information Commissioner’s office.

The proposed budget for the 2008/09 year is expected to be released in late April.

Regulations for the FOI Law (2007) are still being drafted by a steering committee and will eventually be sent to Cabinet for approval.

Anyone wishing to make a comment on what those regulations should contain can either e-mail the FOI Coordinator’s Office at [email protected]; or call 345-244-3609.

The FOI Unit is located in Elizabethan Square, building D, George Town.