For the record: Does government support FOI?

Cayman Islands officials’ apparently equivocal attitude toward government transparency is troubling, perhaps even telling.

According to a recent report from the Information Commissioner’s Office, during the 2014/15 fiscal year, more than half of open records requests filed with the government were not answered within the 30-day time frame required by the Freedom of Information Law. Further, for 31 percent of requests, responses did not arrive within 60 days (meaning the response was not provided even including an additional 30-day extension).

Also during the 2014/15 fiscal year, only 39 percent of the time did government release in full the records that were requested.

Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers said, “These statistics clearly show that government at large is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to applying the Freedom of Information Law.

“Applicants have to wait longer than ever before 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.”

In the absence of real consequences for failing to follow the FOI law, which Mr. Liebaers has assured us exist in the legislation but which we have yet to see in practice (much less in court), civil servants will only be as accountable for FOI failures as officials at the top are willing to hold them.
Premier Alden McLaughlin, for one, made his feelings on FOI clear in early June, calling it “an unproductive use of time” that “doesn’t achieve anything as far as government, as delivery of services is concerned.”

While we have the greatest respect for Mr. Liebaers, he — or more accurately, his title — is also indicative of our government’s attitude toward the prevailing FOI regime.

For some 21 months, since the resignation of Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, Mr. Liebaers — as “Acting Information Commissioner” — has been charged with leading the office, in the absence of a permanent commissioner.

In the meantime, it seems that Cabinet has held off on appointing a permanent information commissioner — and a permanent complaints commissioner, and perhaps a new auditor general — while lawmakers consider a recommendation from Ernst and Young to amalgamate a number of government oversight entities into a single body headed by an ombudsman.

We do not consider Cayman’s FOI Law to be a panacea for poor governance — or a substitute for good probative reporting. However, we believe that more proactive disclosure of government records to the public, without the requirement of a request, particularly when those records obviously belong in the public domain, would constitute a more effective and efficient effort toward transparency than focusing on strictly enforcing the existing FOI law.
That being said, if the current law truly is, as our premier has stated, too onerous and resource-consuming, then he should muster the votes in the Legislative Assembly to change the FOI Law.

It may not be a perfect law, but it is the law, and it must be respected. There’s nothing more transparent than that.