Office looks to speed FOI requests

Too much bureaucracy, resistance

Cayman’s Information Commissioner
has proposed reducing the amount of time government agencies have to review
open records requests filed by members of the public, with an eye toward speeding
up responses to those queries.

The Freedom of Information Law
(2007) allows anyone to request information and/or records from Cayman’s
government and sets a specific timeline during which the government must
respond.

Now, government information
managers have 30 calendar days to review open records requests and decide
whether they should release the requested records. If they decide against
releasing the records, applicants can then appeal to the chief officer in
charge of the agency.

The chief officer then has another
30 days to review the information.

In many cases, Deputy Information
Commissioner Jan Liebaers said that extra step might not be needed since the
chief officer was often involved in the initial decision to release the
records.

“(So) it’s really just a
duplication of effort,” Mr. Liebaers said. “There is a further delay for the
applicant…and that’s not a good thing.”

Information Commissioner Jennifer
Dilbert has proposed the 30 day time limit set for the chief officer’s review
be reduced to 15 days. Mrs. Dilbert said that was not an unreasonable time
frame as the open records culture took hold and grew in Cayman.

“Things have changed,” Mrs. Dilbert
said. “We won’t see it overnight, but things have changed.”

Mr. Liebaers agreed that change was
slow to come, but noted it was indicative of a broader cultural shift in
government.

“Traditionally, there has been a
top-down management style in government,” he said. “I think that is just not
tenable in the kind of complex entity government is these days.”

A Legislative Assembly committee is
expect to meet before the end of the year to discuss proposed changes to the
FOI Law, from the information commissioner and from lawmakers themselves. A
date for that committee meeting has not been set.

 

The more things change….

An investigation by Cayman’s
information commissioner has revealed that while the Freedom of Information Law
has gotten the public’s attention, Mrs. Dilbert said some public authorities
are having trouble with FOI Law timelines.

During the investigation – dubbed
‘Operation Fred’ – the information commissioner’s team was assigned two public
authorities that were selected at random. The staff member contacted the
authority anonymously using a pseudonym and requested records covered by the
FOI Law. 

The requests were kept basic since
the focus of the investigation was to monitor the time that public authorities
took to respond to requests. Information managers at all 88 public authorities
were notified of the investigation prior to its commencement in May.

The 10 agencies that were reviewed
included the Agriculture Department, the Cayman Turtle Farm, the Civil Service
Appeals Commission, the Computer Services Department, the Employment Relations
Department, the Ministry of Community Affairs and Housing, the National Roads
Authority, the Public Library Service, the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service
and the Tourism Attractions Board.

The investigation uncovered more
widespread problems, according to the information commissioner’s office.  The report identified that applicants for
information faced significant delays in receiving replies from the authorities
and sometimes received conflicting responses. 

Often, applicants needed to
aggressively pursue the authority for a response or volunteer to narrow the
scope of the request in an effort to help the department identify records, the
information commissioner’s office noted. This latter task is one that should
have been instigated by the authority and not the applicant. 

At the end of the investigation
only two of the 10 requests received satisfactory responses, the information
commissioner’s office noted.

Mrs. Dilbert said that despite the
discoveries made during this investigation, she hopes these results will compel
and motivate authorities to ensure that they have procedures in place to
support the FOI process.

“Freedom of Information is being
embraced in Cayman,” Mrs. Dilbert said. “What I am concerned about is that information
managers…are not always being given the resources and time to respond to requests.”

Mrs. Dilbert said her office would
look at further investigations in the future that would target specific
departments that are not complying with the open records law.   

 

‘Legislation is workable’

Despite the difficulties the
investigation revealed, Mrs. Dilbert said she remains positive that FOI will
continue to promote and ensure a new culture of open government.

“We’ve proved that the legislation
as it exists is workable,” she said. 

Mrs. Dilbert said that, despite
recent statements about FOI being a ‘scandal sheet’ from Premier McKeeva Bush,
she is under no political pressure.

“I don’t think the Premier is as
bad as the press makes him out to be,” she said. “He might make a lot of
noise…but the information is still getting out there.”

Mrs. Dilbert said, after a slow
start up, her office has been given all the staff and resources it needs to continue
with its mission.

“We really have come a long way,”
she said.

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1 COMMENT

  1. I feel many can take the Freedom of Information Law to their own advantage like submit unreasonable requests for governemnt to answer within an unreasonable time. The reason for this, would be to make government look like they are hiding something and avoiding transparency. Don’t get me wrong, FOI is a good thing; however, we can’t have Mickey Mouse making unreasonable requests.

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