— MLA Alden McLaughlin, Aug. 31, 2007
In debating the Freedom of Information Bill in the Legislative Assembly in August 2007, current Premier Alden McLaughlin, then a Cabinet minister, was effusive in his praise of his PPM government’s efforts to enact a law that would, in his words, “tear off the shutters of the windows of the [Government Administration Building] and let the sun shine in,” “do away with secrecy in government,” and “bring openness and transparency to public administration.”
Nearly eight years later, it appears Mr. McLaughlin and his government have a different view of the importance of FOI legislation in the Cayman Islands, which, according to former Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, was once lauded as the Freedom of Information leader in the Caribbean.
The premier might argue that transparency is still a cornerstone of his government, but when it comes to the FOI Law, his administration’s actions — or lack thereof — are indicative of something else.
First, the government has publicly supported a proposed merger of the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Complaints Commissioner’s Office, something Mrs. Dilbert said would result in “confusion and poor decision making.”
Former Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams called the idea of combining the two offices “a retrograde step” that did not represent good governance.
Though the proposed merger hasn’t happened yet, in the meantime the Progressives-led administration isn’t showing much support to either office, allowing the Complaints Commissioner’s position to remain effectively vacant since Ms. Williams’s departure in January and leaving the Information Commissioner’s position in limbo, with Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers’s contract expiring this month.
What’s more, the government controls the funding for the Information Commissioner’s Office and as Mr. Liebaers pointed out in a letter to the Cayman Compass editor last week, many government information managers have not been provided adequate training and lack support from their own organizations’ senior management.
In other words, it appears Cayman’s FOI apparatus is being set up to fail.
Mrs. Dilbert said this week that the Information Commissioner’s Office was being starved of resources by the government. She questioned how much, if any, savings would be gained by government by merging the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Complaints Commissioner’s Office.
According to government financial records, the entire budget for both offices is $1.5 million annually, which amounts to less than 0.3 percent of central government’s forecast operating expenses, so any savings from merging the two would be considerably less.
FOI’s downgrade in status, from Mr. McLaughlin’s “signal moment” in the development of the Cayman Islands in 2007, to a potential merger opportunity in 2015, is evidence that the government — both elected members and civil servants — have developed a distaste for FOI and its consequences. (Stated another way, it suggests that FOI is working.)
The provisions of the Freedom of Information Law have sometimes been ridiculed by politicians and evaded or ignored by civil servants, who are increasingly coming up with excuses to say “no” whenever the documents requested might reflect negatively on, well, anyone.
A minimum prerequisite for government accountability is for records generated by or for government to be made public on a timely basis. This in turn plays an important role in public sector efficiency, and helps to engender the trust of Cayman’s residents.