Despite a projected $90 million increase in revenues and an overall projected $20 million increase in personnel costs during the current Cayman Islands government budget year, the Information Commissioner’s Office appears to be getting short shrift in fulfilling its open records mandate.
According to a recently released quarterly report from Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert’s office, a combination of limited resources and the sheer number and complexity of Freedom of Information request appeals coming before it have stymied efforts to help that office reach “accepted international levels of independence”.
“The practical reasons for this are budgetary, as the [Information Commissioner’s Office] is tied to the government budget process,” the office’s quarterly report noted, not related to any political interference.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for deciding all instances when there is a dispute over whether government records should be released to the public or kept private. In the four years since her office has been in operation, only one of Mrs. Dilbert’s decisions on an open records ruling has been challenged in court.
However, as the Freedom of Information Law in the Cayman Islands has developed over the past several years and become more established, the office has reported information appeal issues becoming more litigious and complicated; thereby taking up more staff time and resources.
The office also continues to receive requests from the general public for assistance with FOI-related problems.
“These requests do not fall within the category of an ‘appeal’ under the law, and can range from helping an applicant to formulate a freedom of information request to informing an applicant of their rights under the law,” the report noted.
One staffing issue that has continued to plague the office in recent years is the absence of a senior appeals and policy analyst, a position that has been vacant for more than two years.
In order to fill the void, Mrs. Dilbert and Deputy Governor Franz Manderson’s office have discussed whether civil servants might be seconded to the information commissioner’s office for a set time.
“It is felt that this would be good use of government resources which may be underemployed in some public authorities,” the report stated, adding the first such placement could occur this month.
Limited staff has also prevented the information commissioner’s office from following up on whether public authority websites are publishing information proactively as required under the FOI Law.
“This investigation has been put on hold for the time being,” the information commissioner’s report stated.
No further progress has been publicly reported on the review of the Freedom of Information Law, ostensibly going on for more than two years now by a subcommittee of the Legislative Assembly and subsequently by a committee of the whole House. Open records requests for the minutes of subcommittee meetings made by the Caymanian Compass have been denied.
Mrs. Dilbert’s office noted that it may seek to reconsider or revise its initial recommendations on the FOI Law, first submitted in September 2010.
The FOI Law, according to the legislation, was supposed to be reviewed within the first 18 months of its passage. The law took effect on 5 January, 2009.