Modest savings expected from government merger

A Cabinet proposal to merge the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Complaints Commissioner’s Office won’t save government much money or significantly reduce staff numbers if it is implemented.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said in April that the “collective view” of the Progressives-led administration was that the combination of the Information Commissioner’s Office, which handles open records request disputes, and the Complaints Commissioner’s Office, which acts as Cayman Islands government ombudsman, was something government should pursue.

“I’m not sure, structurally, how it will all work,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We’re seeking to avoid duplication or replication of functions.”

While the government’s proposal is not to eliminate the two offices, a cost comparison sheds some light on any potential savings. An examination of government budget records for the current 2014/15 fiscal year reveals that if both offices were eliminated, about $1.5 million would be shaved from the annual spending plan. A total of 12 jobs – 11 of which are currently filled – would be cut.

The $1.5 million, representing the entire budget for the complaints commissioner and the information commissioner combined, is less than 0.3 percent of the central government’s estimated operating expenses, which Premier McLaughlin stated would be approximately $529.7 million at the end of the budget year in June.

The total 12 staff positions represent 0.2 percent of an entire public sector staff, including statutory authorities and-owned companies, that now employs more than 5,800 people.

The Cayman Compass reported last August that both Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers and former Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams were concerned about the merger diluting the independence and effectiveness of their respective offices.

The initial proposal was to merge the two and add a third complaints element – an appointed police complaints commission to handle civilian complaints against police officers.

In addition to the as-yet unformed police review commission, the information commissioner was slated to receive additional responsibilities following the government implementation of a Data Protection Law.

Proposals for the new data protection regime, which is being drawn up to safeguard personal privacy with regard to data handled by public and private sector entities, were delayed once in 2012 and have come under scrutiny again following a critical review of the proposed law by the Cayman Islands Human Rights Commission. The new Data Protection Bill has not been put before the Legislative Assembly.

All of these responsibilities, under the initial merger plan, would be under the purview of a new department head described as a “super ombudsman” who would handle the entire operation, including police complaints, public complaints, open records request appeals and data protection functions.

Whether all these areas might be handled with fewer than the current complement of a dozen staff positions in the information commissioner and complaints commissioner’s offices was considered questionable by Ms. Williams.

“Splicing together disparate bodies with completely different functions whose only common thread is oversight is not, in my opinion, good governance,” Ms. Williams said prior to departing Cayman for a new ombudsman’s post in the U.K. this year.

Mr. Liebaers, whose current government contract expires at the end of this month, was asked about the merger idea last year.

“What I said to them – although I’m not American, I did an American quote – ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I think Freedom of Information right now in Cayman … works very, very well and I would hate to see anything interfere with that, “ Mr. Liebaers said.

Internationally, there are widely varying views on combining Freedom of Information functions with data protection and/or ombudsman’s duties. David Banisar, a senior lawyer with the U.K.-based Global Campaign for Free Expression in London, has written research papers on the topic for the World Bank, among other international agencies.

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, but in practice, they have found a number of practical problems, mostly relating to finances,” Mr. Banisar said. “There tends not to be a lot of cost savings, so there is a fight for resources if the budgets are reduced when agencies are combined.

Although there are some synergies between data protection and open records, for instance, Mr. Banisar said the culture surrounding the two tend to be “rather different.”

“In the U.K. … there was such a strong culture of data protection that information commission functions were underfunded in comparison,” he said. “Even to this day, I’m not confident that the two have the same level of power in the office.”

Mr. Banisar was also wary of anything to do with investigating police complaints being attached to an ombudsman or information commission function.

“I just cannot imagine anything good happening by combining [those offices] with the one on police complaints,” he said. “They have a radically different culture, usually staffed by ex-police for one thing, and are not about promoting openness.

“It’s just a fundamentally bad idea unless your point is to kill the right to information.”

The right to information is protected under the Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009, but the order does not constitutionally guarantee that there will be an information commissioner’s position. Similarly, the position of the local ombudsman is referenced in the constitution, but the governing document does not expressly state that there shall be a complaints commissioner.

Some legislative changes would be required in the local Complaints Commissioner Law and the Freedom of Information Law, if government was to proceed with combining the two offices.