Today’s Editorial for January 5: Hoping for the best with FOI

Today marks the first day we in the Cayman Islands can use the historic Freedom of Information Law.

In principle, FOI moves the Cayman Islands another step toward transparency in government, which is something most people in the public – and all of us in the media – would agree is a great thing.

However, before we start uncritically congratulating the government on a job well done, we must remember that any law is only as good as its interpretation, implementation and enforcement. Unfortunately, when it comes to the FOI Law, there are many ways the fine print of the law or uncooperative civil servants can mitigate its usefulness.

To start with, Freedom of Information is not without its red tape. Requests must be made in writing and the respondents must answer in writing. Information officers can also deny a FOI request it if falls under one of the many exemptions stated in the law

FOI is also not always free of charge. The FOI Regulations list a rage of prices to get copies of documents, photographs and plans. If someone wants a 50-page document copied, it will likely cost between $50 and $75.

Freedom of Information might not be instantaneous, either. Generally, public authorities have 30 days to respond to a FOI request, but for a number of reasons, these requests can legally be delayed for several months or more.

Ultimately, the willingness of the information managers will determine the success or failure of FOI as it is currently written. If they are sold on the principles of the law and on the basic tenet suggesting the public should know the majority of what its government does, then FOI should work well here.

However, we are sceptical.

There is a long-standing culture of secrecy in government here, starting with the fact that civil servants must sign contracts that bind them to secrecy with relation to their work. As a result, many civil servant information managers will almost instinctively want to say no to FOI requests, especially when it comes to things they know their ministers or chief officers might not want known at a particular time.

If a certain government minister or portfolio head wants something kept out of the public domain, there are ways for him or her to legally do so, at least for an extended period of time. Since these are the matters that will likely give the most usefulness to FOI, the failure to give out this information on a timely basis can also lead to the law’s biggest disappointment.

As with any new law, there will be a period of adjustment as the law begins its life. If fundamental problems arise in its implementation, the government can always make amendments to the law.

We understand there will be glitches in the workings of the FOI Law. When it comes to FOI, we hope for the best, but we are preparing for some disappointments.