Government buy in, public needed

Coming from a country where FOI has
been in place for over a decade provides me with a unique vantage point from
which to observe how Cayman is implementing the law, coping with new
responsibilities and openness and how the public is embracing (or not
embracing) these new rights. The two most prominent points that come to mind as
I think about writing this article are government “buy in” and public
participation. Both of which are necessary for the law to work properly and be

What do I mean by government buy
in? I mean a genuine effort by those who run the show to provide support for
FOI processes, respect the timelines prescribed in the Law and respond as
openly and completely as possible to requests no matter who has made them and
no matter the perceived reasons for the request. During my time here I have
seen a dedicated commitment to accomplishing the goals of the Law from a large
number of civil servants. In some other cases unfortunately I have also seen a
good amount of apathy from a small group of others who hold key positions
within government. It is disheartening to see this when they are the ones that
should be champions of the Law rather than neutral or, in some cases, negative.
Now this is not to say that Cayman is unique in these attitudes as I have
experienced similar trains of thought back home. The uniqueness here I think is
the fact that some of the negative attitudes come from some of the highest
places in government and in such a small community this can have serious ramifications
on the acceptance and continued use of something as potentially controversial
as FOI.

The other piece of the puzzle which
has to be in place for this system to work and with which I have seen, and
heard, some issues with is public participation. So far I believe the trend has
been that the media and a few savvy, interested members of the public have been
responsible for making a large number of the requests so far. This is evidenced
by the news stories coming out in the media and the Appeals that have been received
by the ICO. This is not necessarily the case when it comes to all the public
authorities as I know that a large number of separate individuals have
requested their files from the Immigration Department. For other public
authorities however, the trend, that a few are responsible for the most requests,
seems to stand firm. While the media does have the responsibility of conducting
investigative journalism and informing the public of what they find the public
should not solely rely on them to keep the government on its toes.

I know there is still a large
number of people that know little or nothing about FOI. While it is true that
some people will just never be interested in the topic, I get the sense that
many are at times reluctant to learn about, or use, the FOI system in fear that
they may be singled out. A fear that, if they do not make their requests
anonymously, may in some cases be well founded. Anonymity is especially
important in a community as small as the Cayman Islands and efforts should be
taken not to erode this protection, or an increase in public participation may
never be possible. People have a right to know what their government is doing.
The culture has to change so that questioning the government and the answering
of those questions should be the norm rather than the exception.

Of course change does not take
place over-night. In a short period of time the government has been forced to
at least partially open its doors to a level of public scrutiny that it never
experienced before. For some, this scrutiny can come across as threatening and,
in a sense, unnatural. Change will take time. While I have picked on perhaps a
couple of the more negative aspects of the Cayman FOI arena it does not mean that
I have not seen other very promising aspects as well, especially from some of
the very hard working Information Managers whose job it is to keep the FOI
system running. The cultural change will be gradual and over time hopefully FOI
will become more mainstream. Inevitably there will be dissenters and people
that will say FOI is too much work and too costly. These peoples’ voices will
fade, believe me. I just hope the cultural change will come before any possible
negative legislative changes can be made such as the inability to make
anonymous requests or an exorbitant increase in fees, which are within the
government’s power to make happen.


Cory Martinson

Former Appeals &

Policy Analyst, ICO