Manderson: Goal to publish proactively more information
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson declared last week that the Cayman Islands now has “an open government,” when asked about the progress of the territory’s first Freedom of Information Law since its inception in 2009.
“FOI is alive and well,” Mr. Manderson told the Caymanian Compass. “While a few cases have not been handled as everyone would have liked, the majority of [open records requests] … we never hear about them because there’s nothing to report.”
The deputy governor pointed to recent figures from Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert’s office that indicated 2,901 open records requests had been made since Jan. 5, 2009, when the Freedom of Information Law, 2007, took effect. Only 34 of those requests made it to a full hearing before the commissioner when the parties involved in the request could not agree on what information should be released.
“That tells us that the vast, vast majority of requests get through the system,” Mr. Manderson said. “It’s very clear to me those [34 appeals] are the exceptions.”
Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law allows anyone in the world to request information from local government entities. Requests can be made anonymously and free of charge, although in some cases a small fee can be assessed if copies have to be made or additional research undertaken. The law sets out to a certain degree what types of information are public and which types are restricted.
The Cayman law has generally been viewed as a success. Unlike many Caribbean countries where open records laws have been put in place and not used or not enacted by local legislatures, Cayman’s has received widespread use by both special interest groups and the general public.
However, despite the successes over the years, Commissioner Dilbert has recently reported that relations between her office and some civil service entities have soured because of hold-ups with certain FOI requests. The commissioner, who announced her retirement in a newsletter last month, also noted that funding for a staff analyst position had been withheld by government for years.
“The [information commissioner’s office] is … finding it increasingly difficult to secure the cooperation of some public authorities and public officers, even at the highest levels, in the context of an appeal,” the newsletter from Mrs. Dilbert’s office read. “While an applicant is by law entitled to reasons why records are being withheld, such an explanation is sometimes not or insufficiently given, and it is not uncommon for full reasons to be delayed until a hearing has commenced.
“This is not acceptable, fair or legal, and the ICO will not tolerate it.”
The long-time civil servant and attorney was the first person appointed to the office prior to Cayman’s first Freedom of Information Law taking effect.
“The commissioner has advised the newly formed Legislative Assembly that she is unable to continue to head a viable office without some relatively small increases in the budget for 2013/14,” the information commissioner’s recent newsletter read.
The office is expected to receive funds for a senior policy analyst position in October, Mrs. Dilbert said. Mr. Manderson confirmed Thursday that the new government budget included money for the position. “I think it’s all done,” he said.
In addition, the office has spent nearly $50,000 so far in pursuing a legal challenge against one of its rulings filed by former Cayman Islands Governor Duncan Taylor. The legal challenge concerns the release of certain records related to the Operation Tempura police corruption investigation of 2007-2009.
“The legal and professional fees budget of the [information commissioner’s office] has been completely stripped away during budget cuts and the commissioner has always stated that, should it become necessary, additional funding would have to be provided,” the newsletter noted. “These issues, although budget related, have the effect of negatively affecting the ability of the commissioner to effectively meet her obligations under the law, and they therefore interfere with the independence of this office.”
Mr. Manderson said as time has progressed and both the public and the government service have become more sophisticated in their use of open records law, requests have sometimes become more complex and required assistance from the government’s Legal Department. Also, putting together information to respond to an open records request can take time, even if the government department fully intends to release the information promptly.
“Sometimes, we are being more than helpful,” the deputy governor said. “People have to understand that, if they want these things from government, it comes with a cost. We just can’t keep asking the same people to do more and more work. I don’t know of any department that has an FOI manager where that’s all they do.”
Ultimately, the goal is to have government departments proactively publish as much information as possible via the Internet, Mr. Manderson said.
“That is my vision and objective as DG is for us to put much more information than we are doing on our website, make it public so that we don’t have these requests,” he said. “We’ve gotten off to a good start with the premier, who is publishing his travel expenses. I will be doing the same thing. The more we do of that, the better.”