FOI emails lost in cyberspace

Ten government agencies either were not receiving or were not responding to open records requests submitted via email for significant portions of 2013, an investigation conducted by the Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s Office has revealed.  

Most of the cases where Freedom of Information requests were lost involved either systems malfunctions or confusion among staff at the various agencies over whose job it was to answer open records emails.  

Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers said the office’s investigation showed a significant problem with a number of government entities carrying out their constitutionally-required duties.  

“Most FOI requests are made via email and if the government’s FOI email addresses are not working properly, then some public authorities will not be able to effectively meet their obligations under the FOI Law to respond to those requests,” Mr. Liebaers noted in a report on the situation issued last week.  

The issue was first revealed when an open records request sent to the Ministry of Finance on Sept. 13, 2013, by the Cayman Compass, was never received by that office.  

After a month passed with no response, the newspaper asked about the request and was told by the ministry that the email account the office was using to receive open records requests apparently accepted emails only from internal sources.  

In other words, only requests sent via a “dot-gov” email would get through, but requests from gmail, yahoo or hotmail accounts would not.  

This was an “extreme” case of a systems malfunction that Mr. Liebaers said had since been corrected. More often, the information commissioner’s office found that emailed FOI requests were sent to “spam” filters and simply not read, or that the person whose job it was to answer those emails had left the department and not been replaced.  

Also, if the open records email address had changed because the government ministry involved had a new name or a department was operating under a new ministry, such changes were not always communicated to the Cayman Islands National Archive. The national archive is the agency responsible for keeping track of FOI email addresses.  

Staffing issues relative to FOI were a bit more basic in nature, according to the report. There was some confusion over which employee has responsibility for monitoring FOI emails or cases where FOI emails were sent to the wrong employee and never forwarded to the proper person.  

“Some ministries had a single person monitoring the FOI email addresses of one of more departments for which they [were]responsible, but not those of other departments,” the review noted. “This could cause a lack of clarity [in responding to FOI emails].”  

The problems identified via a test email sent to all government departments, statutory authorities and government-owned companies – any agency required to respond to an open records request under the FOI Law – identified only 10 problem departments out of more than 90 which now exist within the public sector. However, Mr. Liebaers indicated the information office was still displeased with the results of its survey.  

“There is no level of FOI service disruption that is acceptable, irrespective of the total volume of requests a public authority might receive,” Mr. Liebaers said. “Maintaining and monitoring an email address is not a burdensome task and most of the issues encountered could be rectified with relative ease.”  

The government entities that encountered problems with the Nov. 22, 2013, “test” email from the information commissioner’s office included: the Department of Labour and Pensions, the Financial Services Secretariat, the Ministry of Home and Community Affairs, the National Housing Development Trust, the National Workforce Development Agency, the Tourism Attraction Board, the Children and Youth Services Foundation, the Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Counseling Services and the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange.  

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