Elections office flunks FOI test

A second round of anonymous open records test requests from Cayman’s Information Commissioner’s Office finds that many government entities are generally responding much better than they had been to those queries.

But some are still having serious problems meeting requirements under the law, the anonymous investigation by the office found.

According to the commissioner’s office, Cayman’s Elections Office displayed “astonishing failures” in responding to a relatively simple Freedom of Information request made by an anonymous requester.

“It seems obvious that the Elections Office did not treat its obligations under the FOI Law with the necessary seriousness,” the report from Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert stated. “No serious attempt was made to respond to the request under the FOI Law or otherwise.”

The test request for the purposes of the information commissioner’s investigation was made to the Elections Office for ‘documents relating to current staff of the Elections Office, their respective responsibilities during election and non-election years’. The request was sent to the Elections Office FOI email.

The investigation revealed that the Elections Office chose not to handle the matter as an open records request and instead responded straight away.

“In its reply the public authority provided only a general answer to the questions raised,” Commissioner Dilbert noted in the report.

The applicant for the information followed up and repeated the request several days later. The Elections Office then referred the requester to the Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs, but didn’t forward the actual request.

The Information Commissioner’s Office did not pursue the request any further through the FOI internal review process.

After the anonymous probe ended, the commissioner’s office sought to “understand the reasons behind these astonishing failures” and contacted the Elections Office again. They were referred, again, to the portfolio.

“From the portfolio we learned that the Elections Office has for the past few months been undergoing significant organisational and staffing changes, including replacement of the supervisor of elections who was the appointed information manager,” the commissioner’s report stated.

Upon Mrs. Dilbert’s recommendations, the portfolio has agreed to handle all open records requests made to the Elections Office and the Electoral Boundary Commission and to provide more thorough and complete information regarding FOI and the Elections Office.

“The ICO emphasises that organisational or staffing changes…should be addressed proactively so as not to interfere with the public’s right to know,” the information commissioner’s office stated.

Work ahead

A number of other government entities, including the Lands and Survey Department, the Governor’s Office, and the Commissions secretariat were commended for good responses to anonymous FOI requests filed during the course of the information commissioner’s investigation. In all, 10 government entities came under review.

“In some ways, this investigation contrasts favourably with the previous investigation published in September 2010,” the information commissioner wrote. “But it also demonstrates the persistent nature of some weaknesses and brings to light a number of new issues.”

Among those concerns, according to Mrs. Dilbert, were that various information managers who responded to open records requests did not seem to understand that it was their duty to help an FOI applicant with narrowing down their information requests. Other managers didn’t understand they were obligated under the law to transfer a records request if it was sent to the wrong place.

The review also found that many entities are not using their websites to proactively publish as much information as possible.

“Only a few authorities make full use of the internet to inform the public about the rules of FOI, applicants’ rights under the law, the types of information proactively available, and previous requests and their outcomes,” the commissioner’s review stated.

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