Once again we find ourselves being forced to question the government’s oft stated commitment to ‘openness and transparency.’
The question this time arises not from the actions of politically elected ministers, but from a 31 March letter sent to all civil servants and signed by Chief Secretary George McCarthy.
Paragraph 4 of that letter reads: ‘It also follows that public servants shall not provide information regarding the operation of the government, policy initiatives, internal communications or management decisions made by the government of the day, other than through official channels like the Freedom of Information Act, parliamentary questions or documents in the public domain such as the annual budget statement and the pre-election financial update.’
Now, put yourself in the shoes of a civil servant who might read that letter.
Does that statement confirm a strong commitment to transparency? Does it provide assurance that civil servants can deal with the public in an open and forthright manner?
No, it does quite the opposite.
Here is another quandary in the development of the Cayman Islands as a true democracy. You have the elected arm of government repeatedly telling civil servants, and the general public, that it intends to provide as much access and as many details as possible concerning matters it undertakes on behalf of the islands.
Yet the ‘shadow government,’ if we might use such a term, of civil servants who carry out the work of government and who are supposed to operate independently of the elected arm are told they ‘shall not provide information’ unless that information comes via an open records request, an official question before parliament (which only elected MLAs can ask), or a document that has already been made public.
Further, the ministers urge civil servants to report wrongdoing they see; that they will be protected under the Freedom of Information Law. Yet each and every civil servant is still required to sign what amounts to a ‘declaration of secrecy’ before accepting any post. A declaration that makes revealing information a cause for losing one’s job.
If we were civil servants, we’d be scared to talk to the press, or anyone else for that matter, too.
If government, any part of government whether elected or appointed, wishes to live in a true democratic and free society, they must take steps to erase the climate of fear that still exists in the Cayman Islands regarding public information.
Of course, there are certain matters that cannot be disclosed in public as a practical matter including national security, trade secrets, certain personal matters, etc.
But simply stating broad outlines for non-disclosure of ‘information regarding the operation of the government’ is, in our view, a cheap scare tactic designed to keep those who can provide critical information from speaking.