EDITORIAL – The FOI regime: Address the mess

“Access to government records provides the public with the information they need to participate in the democratic process. An informed electorate is better able to evaluate and monitor public officials and ensure an honest, competent and responsive government. In a democracy, the records belong to the people, and are held in trust for the people by government.”
– Your Guide to The Freedom of Information Law 2007

It has been more than a decade since lawmakers passed Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law, enshrining in statute the fundamental right of the people to access the work of government that is being conducted on our behalf.

By law, Cayman’s public authorities are required to “open their books” for public inspection unless they can provide a compelling reason not to do so. Last week, Ombudsman Sandy Hermiston upheld a refusal of records on the most unusual grounds: The records are in too big a mess.

Last spring, an applicant requested data concerning licensed taxi drivers in Grand Cayman, including their total number, how many are Caymanian-born or are status holders, how many hail from Jamaica, how many are employed by government, etc.

The following month, the Ministry of District Administration, Tourism and Transport advised that there are 285 taxis on Grand Cayman but declined to provide any driver information, maintaining that the Public Transportation Unit (PTU) does not keep such statistics.

The applicant appealed to the ombudsman’s office, which determined the PTU in fact does have some of the requested information included on drivers’ applications, which are stored in “two four-drawer lateral filing cabinets.” However, the Ministry’s information manager estimated it would take months for a department employee to review the applications and sift through additional piles of paperwork to compile the necessary information. To prove the point, the manager submitted “photographs of a number of paper records in disarray.”

(Let’s pause for a moment and put aside the FOI issue to ask this question: Why are the records in such disarray. Why is this tolerated by any manager in any department – public or private?)

The FOI law commands public authorities not only to respond to records requests, but also to proactively publish important public information. A good example is the Department of Environment’s daily progress reports for the green iguana cull.

Not only does the DoE publish cull totals, it has made available on its website the names and contact information of 279 registered cullers – approximately the same number as there are licensed taxis on Grand Cayman.

Even though Ombudsman Hermiston rejected the information manager’s assertion that searching the records would require eight solid months of staff time (she figured it would be closer to a month), she agreed that honoring the records request would impose “an unreasonable diversion” of scarce Transportation Unit resources, noting that the ministry has vowed to keep better records moving forward.

We are not unsympathetic to the workload the FOI law imposes on our public servants. Like anything else, the law can be overused or abused. On the other hand, it is also being abused by the government itself. Far too often, government managers use the FOI mechanism as a tool to delay or deny the release of information which never should have been secret or sequestered in the first instance.

We believe the government could alleviate much of its FOI backlog, costs and drain on its personnel resources if it adopted a much more transparent, government-in-the-sunshine, open-records approach.

Everyone would benefit: Less work for government employees, more timely information for the public.

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