Open records: The Progressives' 'signal moment'

 “[T]his is truly a signal moment in the development of this country as a progressive parliamentary democracy. I believe it is a statement, an indication of our increased, and increasing, maturity as a country.”
— 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.


  1. It is human to say something one year and forget it next year. However we must know that in so doing it can make us look kind a stupid. Besides I believe most of us would have digested by now that if we merge the Information Commissioner’s Office with the Complaint’s Commissioners office, it would not go down very well, and furthermore if the merging would not prove to be worthwhile then why put money into them. This need some serious consideration, so as not to bring about confusions and bad judgements, with the fact that the FOI Law should be transparent at all times showing good teeth not something that we will want to be going back and forth on.

  2. I really do not have a lot of sympathy with the ICO because it seems to me that a lot of their problems are self-inflicted. How can they seriously complain about lack of resources and funding after giving something like half-a-million dollars to lawyers in what I have to regard as a pretty half-baked attempt to secure the release of the Aina report? This act alone has seriously undermined the credibility and viability of what should be a vital service to the public.

    The appeal process rapidly degenerated into a bad joke, which is why I pulled out of it all two years ago. The original appeal ruling seemed to be more concerned with issues within the FOI Law than securing the release of the documents and the transcripts of the two subsequent judicial reviews have been, very bluntly, embarrassing.

    Before the 2013 hearing I went on record as stating that the case presented by the ICO was too weak to be successful and I was proved correct. My opinion was based on a number of appeals before the First Tier Tribunal in the UK. Over here I am used to being allowed to present appeals in person, without representation and without incurring any costs. In the Cayman Islands I was simply shut out of the whole process, a decision that deprived the ICO of not only a large amount of valuable documentation but also experience that might have avoided most of the 2013 court fiasco.

    Whilst I accept Jan Liebaers comments about the abilities of FOI managers my experience suggests that the ICO is not exactly firing on all cylinders itself. Over three years down the road the last court hearing (February this year) on the Aina report was still dealing with some very basic issues of the FOI Law that had been ignored in the original appeal decision – can anyone explain that?

  3. John, did no one ever tell you when you were in the Cayman Islands that advice (particularly legal advice) is only ever any good if it comes with a hefty price tag?

    I think the truth is that by offering your services for free (it sounds from your comment like there were no fees involved) you were simply seen as threatening the accepted status quo.

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