EDITORIAL – Replacing secrecy with transparency in government policy

Sometimes “no comment” is the right comment for public officials – when, for example, they are responding to inquiries regarding pending litigation, human resources issues or contract negotiations with the private sector.

However, “no comment” should never be employed as a default communications strategy to withhold information that rightfully belongs to the public and should be shared accordingly. There are far too many major issues facing the Cayman Islands for officials, both elected and at the highest levels of the Civil Service, to avoid sharing much more information with their constituencies. Silence may be safe, it may be convenient, but it is not an acceptable strategy in a free and democratic society.

Consider for a moment the magnitude of these issues government leaders are negotiating, with little or no public engagement or explanation:

  • Most importantly, the negotiations between our government and the European Union regarding Cayman’s attempts to be removed from the EU financial sector “gray list.” What, for example, have our negotiators promised their counterparts in Brussels in order for Cayman to avoid being relegated to “blacklist” status? Our EU standing is expected to be decided in December – a mere four months from now – and yet, the general public knows, generally, nothing.
  • Likewise, the public is largely in the dark on the status of the George Town harbor cruise berthing facility, which officials say is progressing, although they have failed to share hardly any details about the massive project, including how they will pay for it.
  • In the 10 months since government announced that a Dart Enterprises-led consortium of companies would take over responsibility for waste management, there has been no enlightenment about the status of that most important project.
  • It has now been more than two months that Cayman has been without a permanent, appointed governor, with no official word about Governor Anwar Choudhury’s status, the reasons for his removal or when the investigation may reasonably be expected to be concluded.
  • Similarly, there has been silence concerning the noted absence of many high-ranking civil servants, including Department of Environmental Health Director Roydell Carter, who has been “out of office” for unexplained reasons since the beginning of this year.

We could, of course, go on …

The Compass, which acts as a proxy for the public, is well aware of our responsibilities to report accurately on all of the above matters – and many more.

From our vantage point, the government mechanisms for the dissemination of information are not helpful. Press releases from Government Information Services (GIS) are so anodyne that no professional journalist would ever simply reprint them. Similarly, statements emanating from departmental communications officers are more often than not written to obfuscate, rather than inform.

At the Compass, we largely ignore such channels, preferring to do our own reporting with inquiries at the Chief Officer level of the Civil Service or by chasing down directly elected members. Of course, we also have extensive Rolodexes of “sources” whom we contact constantly, as well as regular dialog with “whistleblowers” and the general public which share (read: leak) back-channel information.

May we offer a suggestion to Premier Alden McLaughlin and those in his ambit: Reinstate a schedule of regular press conferences. Perhaps, to keep them meaningful, the gatherings should be organized around particular topics (such as those listed) where all of the relevant public officials would convene to respond openly to questions (and follow-up questions) on the key issues of the day.

In Cayman, we have more than our share of tropical sunshine – but far less “government in the sunshine” than we deserve.

1 COMMENT

  1. One of the main reasons that Cayman government gets away with such public-be-damned, opaque behavior is that government has made itself virtually impossible to fire. Almost no amount of wrongdoing, incompetence or arrogance is enough to get a Cayman government employee dismissed. At worst, they’re put on permanent vacation — which lasts until retirement age is achieved! This is a disgrace. This would never work in a private sector business because customers would stop patronizing them and go elsewhere. The business would soon be — out-of-business. Combine this with an attitude of “oh it’s just the public’s money, so why should we worry about frugality…” — and you end up with the current situation.

    Yes, the MLAs have to stand for election every 4 years, but the overall makeup of the Assembly changes little from election to election. And the overall makeup of the civil service work force changes almost not at all.

    Doesn’t Cayman deserve better?

  2. In my opinion, this is an excellent Editorial but I would add an opinion that the details clearly indicate the Government is not here to work for the needs and wishes of the people, but for itself. Clearly, when the government will not respond to the press, limited as it is in Cayman, there is a problem. The government should explain itself when inquired of by the Compass and other news outlets.

    If government works in secret, there clearly is something to hide. You cannot say “Well, the voters have a chance to show their dislike at voting time” when that occurs only once every five years. In addition, whilst the elected leaders make the laws, it is the paid long-time Public Servants who interpret and implement those laws. We all know of instances where one Public Official will say (interpret) one thing and another person will say or do the opposite. These people are there for life, and we all have to accept what those Public Servants say of do as fact. There is little recourse without legal assistance and lots of cash for legal fees if you dispute their interpretation, which by the way is often overturned either by an MLA or the courts.

    Open the government to sunshine by law and enforce that law.

    God Save The Cayman Islands!

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