FOI requests at lowest level since law came into force

The number of requests made under the Freedom of Information Law, giving the public access to government records, is at the lowest level since the law came into effect in 2009, according to a new report from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The annual ICO statistics report, released as part of the office’s annual “Right to Know Week” celebrations, show that the Cayman Islands government received 404 requests between July 2015 and the end of June 2016. The number is down from 702 during the same period the year before.

Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers said he is not sure what accounts for the significant drop in the number of FOI requests, but said several factors could have contributed. He said there has been better training for information managers, responsible for FOI requests in ministries and departments over the past year so they can avoid logging duplicate requests in the system.

He said quick replies to FOI requests do not have to be logged as formal requests, but those responses also do not have to include a notice of appeal. Some information managers, he said, simply do not log the requests into what he acknowledges can be a “tedious” tracking system.

“More FOI requests are not necessarily a good thing,” he said, suggesting that part of the drop could be due to government making more information available online without the need for formal requests for things like meeting minutes.

Mr. Liebaers said there were positive developments in the freedom of information field over the last year, with government departments recording their lowest average response time of 20 days, down from a record high the year before of 31 days.

“Overall, government has done well,” he said, commending information managers for bringing down response times.

The report notes that the drop in the number of requests could have helped response times, but also points to a memo from Deputy Governor Franz Manderson sent across the civil service about complying with FOI requests. The report states, “Mr. Manderson expressed his expectation that requests for assistance from [information managers] be treated as urgent by other civil servants. The DG also emphasized that reducing response times [after last year’s poor results] was a priority for him.”

The statistics released by the information commissioner show that since 2009, 30 percent of FOI requests have been granted in full and another 18 percent were granted in part. A quarter were denied because of an exemption in the law.

The figures for the last year show that almost 70 percent of requests were granted either in full or in part. Thirty-two percent were exempted from release or otherwise withheld.

Right to Know Week

The Information Commissioner’s annual Right to Know Week is running through Monday, Oct. 3, to promote the Freedom of Information Law and teach people how it can be used.

“Every year we still talk to people who don’t know FOI exists,” Mr. Liebaers said. “You really have important rights under the FOI Law.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office has a number of events scheduled for the week. There will be a public outreach push at the Market at the Cricket Field from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, and again in the lobby of the Government Administration Building Friday morning to talk to the public about FOI.

There are also events scheduled for civil servants on Grand Cayman and on the Brac.