By now most of you have heard the repeated mantra that: Freedom of Information legislation is essential to any democratic society in that it promotes transparency and accountability of a government to its people, who through the law now have a right of access to information… Yeah… OK… sure that sounds good, but what does it really mean?
Respectfully, FOI is not just another act of the Legislature it is much more complex. Not complex in the sense of being difficult to interpret, but rather in the sense that it is not capable of being wholly reduced to a simple definition or repeal able law. Instead, try seeing FOI as a lofty politico-philosophy, which allows examination of the general array of government practices that benefit the country, which is the essential underpinning of good governance. This allows the electorate to be informed and if necessary hold firm-reign on their government. In turn the government is compelled to be efficient by implementing and adhering to good record keeping practices, exercising fiscal prudence, and demonstrate general appreciation for human rights. No doubt we all in this time of economic uncertainty are adamant about the need to ensure that we manage our finances properly. These standards should exist in all organized democratic societies whether that society has FOI legislation, some other open government policy or no formal requirement at all.
Government, as stewards of the country’s resources, are obliged to provide the people with records they request, or at least provide full legal and written reasoning for why those records cannot be provided. It is therefore the responsibility of the public to make request in order to make transparency work.
There is some evidence (based on the statistics outlined in the reports produced by the FOI Unit) that the public is using the law to obtain real information which is useful, practical and capable of helping people develop an informed opinion. However, most of the requests that have provoked dialogue among the general populous are the few made by individuals with ties to the media. If we as a people expect to reap the full benefits of the law we must actively and aggressively ‘Exercise our Right to Know’, and be willing to appeal our requests to the Information Commissioner if we are not satisfied with the response from the public authorities. The Cayman Islands is experiencing cultural change in many areas. New horizons in respect to our international status, political representation, finance, immigration, and education system are inevitable. Included at the forefront of these changes is the requirement for open-governance through Freedom of Information. This is also incidentally what we must use to be better informed on how our representatives navigate us through these turbulent times.
A recognized and appreciated move towards cultural change brought in by the FOI Law is the strong requirement for protection of Whistleblowers, allowance of anonymity and procedural fairness.
We all hope to one day be able to say that the culture of secrecy surrounding government operations, in reality, no longer exists; and the fact that the people of this country have taken up the mantle to ensure transparency and good governance has served to ensure that.
Only an informed people can properly determine whether the Government is doing its job… only if you ‘Exercise Your Right To Know’.
Sonji Myles – Intake Analys, Information Commissioner’s Office