Report: Government stalling on FOI requests

More than half of the Freedom of Information requests filed with the Cayman Islands government during the last budget year were not answered within the legally required 30-day time frame, the Information Commissioner’s Office reported Tuesday. 

Response times “took a turn for the worst” during the government’s 2014/15 fiscal year, the information commissioner’s office revealed in its annual statistical report. It stated that 31 percent of the requests filed took more than 60 days to get a response. Another 20 percent of the open records requests were responded to within 30-60 days. 

The FOI Law allows government agencies to request a 30-day extension to the 30-day time line if the response takes longer to compile. However, in many cases, Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers has said, it appeared the government was using the 30-day limit as a target rather than the maximum time allowed for an FOI response. 

“Now it seems that, at least half of the time, the legal time limit is a loose guideline rather than a target, let alone a legal requirement,” the annual report stated. 

In addition to taking longer, far fewer open records queries were being answered in full by the government, the 2014/15 report noted. 

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According to records produced by the office, government has fully released data for fewer than half – 48 percent – of Freedom of Information requests made since January 2009. In the last budget year, that figure fell to 39 percent – an all-time low. 

Despite extending response times to the point of unlawfulness and releasing full records for fewer FOI requests, the open records law remained as popular as ever during 2014/15 in terms of use. The various government entities involved received just over 700 requests for information, more than in any year except for the first full year after the Freedom of Information Law came into effect during 2009/2010. 

“These statistics clearly show that government at large is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to applying the Freedom of Information Law,” Mr. Liebaers said. “Applicants have to wait longer than ever before for a response, and are less likely to get what they asked for in full. Although many government entities make genuine efforts to publish records proactively, this shows that the heralded ‘culture of openness’ remains an aspiration, not a reality.” 

The Information Commissioner’s Office has expressed some concern about government’s support for the open records law since Premier Alden McLaughlin said in June that FOI was “an unproductive use of time.” 

“The sheer number of Mickey Mouse FOI requests that are being submitted creates such a burden on the system and on the people who have to [respond to them], what I call legitimate FOI requests are often not dealt with as expeditiously as they should be,” Premier McLaughlin said during a June meeting of the Legislative Assembly’s Finance Committee. “When the sheer volume of work and expense that is involved in answering questions gets too great … the system starts to grind more slowly and more slowly. 

“There’s only so much in terms of resources that can be devoted in terms of dealing with FOI which, quite frankly and realistically from a country standpoint, is an unproductive use of time,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “It’s part of the transparency process, but it doesn’t achieve anything as far as the government, as delivery of services is concerned.” 

Mr. Liebaers said at the time that he was caught completely off-guard by the remarks. 

“I am surprised that the premier has never shared these concerns with the Information Commissioner’s Office,” Mr. Liebaers said. “I suppose government would like to be able to determine which request is legitimate and which isn’t. Fortunately, that is not the system the FOI Law provides for and it would not be a system worthy of any democratic country.” 

Jan Liebaers

Mr. Liebaers
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  1. I fully understand and appreciate the concerns outlined by Premier McLaughlin. What I would like to suggest is that he looks to technology for an answer to the problems. It seems to me that if more information were stored and available in electronic format the CIG would be able to respond a lot quicker to requests for information. There might also exist the possibility to allow people to query some of that data themselves thereby shifting the responsibility away from the government.

  2. Does Premier McLaughlin think people have nothing better to do than waste their time sending in bogus FOI requests? Come on, people have families to feed and time is precious to everyone. This maybe a waste of his time, but certainly not a waste of the person requesting the information. In my opinion even 30 days is too long. This gives adequate time for information to be manipulated. If the government wants to be transparent, provide the information in a timely manner, period.