1,400 FOI requests made

Cayman’s Freedom of Information regime remains strong more than two years since the open records law took effect, but it still needs the “buy-in” of senior government officials, Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert said last week.

Mrs. Dilbert told a packed room at the University College of the Cayman Islands Friday that FOI was “alive and well” with more than 1,400 requests for information having been filed in the first two years of the law’s existence.

The legal foundation that allows anyone in the public to request information from the Cayman Islands government is well established, Mrs. Dilbert said. It’s now just a matter of following through.

“We are just learning; Freedom of Information is still new in the Cayman Islands,” she told an audience of about 40 people at the International Conference on Leadership, Governance and Empowerment in the Caribbean, which was hosted at UCCI on Friday.

“We have to have the processes to make it work,” she said. “Not only do we have to have the law, but we have to make it work for the general public, for everyone.”

Mrs. Dilbert told attendees at the section of the UCCI conference that dealt with media, freedom of information and governance, that open records laws represent a major shift in the way local government deals with requests for information. Consequently, there has been and continues to be some resistance 
to the idea.

“Previously, you would ask for information or for a record of a government department…and what you got depended on who you spoke to, who you knew and whether they felt like talking to you,” she said. “The FOI Law takes away that discretion from government…and it replaces this discretion with a set of rules that have to be applied when the government is responding to a Freedom of Information request.”

Cayman’s FOI Law, which took effect on 5 January, 2009, allows anyone in the world to request information of the government. Government departments are given a certain amount of time to respond to the requests and can delay or deny the release of information for a number of reasons; among them, national security concerns, on-going criminal investigations, or sensitive commercial information.

“It’s based on the principle that government should rarely, and only in very compelling circumstances, possess more information than you, the public,” Mrs. Dilbert said.

What we’re really struggling to achieve is government support,” she said. “There has to be a political and bureaucratic willingness to embrace a culture of openness and proactive disclosure. It’s not good enough for government to honour the FOI Law in principle while limiting its potential in practice by not providing the infrastructure necessary to comply with the law.”

The Cayman Islands government was due to review the FOI Law 18 months after its passage. A committee of the entire Legislative Assembly, as well as a six-member subcommittee, have been formed to perform that review. Thus far, there have been no public announcements regarding the work of those bodies.

Mrs. Dilbert said she considered 1,424 open records requests received between January 2009 and December 2010 to be “not bad” for a small place. But she’s not certain whether more FOI requests actually equates to a more effective system.

“[Fewer] requests can mean success, because what we’re trying to do is get government to put information out there,” she said.

Some government-appointed boards are now proactively putting minutes of their meetings on websites and others have released reams of information on FOI disclosure lists. This can only be a good thing, Mrs. Dilbert said.

“Public authorities are thinking a little bit more about their actions, because they know that there’s going to be more transparency and accountability,” she said.