Reflections on Freedom of Information in the Cayman Islands

| 28/09/2015 | 10 Comments

Cayman News ServiceActing Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers writes: On September 28th the Cayman Islands joins more than 100 jurisdictions around the world in a celebration of the Right to Know. Thousands of people on all six continents use their access rights under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws to gain access to information that is important to them, and make their governments more open and accountable. Now that our own FOI Law has been in effect for more than 6 ½ years, and we join the global community in celebrating our right to know, this is an opportune time to briefly reflect on the state of FOI in the Cayman Islands.

A few months ago, the Centre for Law and Democracy gave exceedingly high marks to the Cayman FOI Law which has justly been praised as a model for the Caribbean and beyond. In support of the FOI Law the Cabinet Office recently provided much-needed training to Information Managers and public officers. It is also now preparing to give the FOI Unit a fresh start by hiring staff to ensure this critical service continues to be provided.

The number of requests made to government is rising steadily, and the Press is overflowing with important stories on subjects such as the quality of public education, the justice system, hiring and employment practices, gun ownership, to name but a few. These issues would be all but impossible to write or research without FOI. Hundreds of other, more personal stories never reach the front pages, but are equally important to the persons who need answers from their government and – in many cases – have a right to know, thanks to FOI.

That being said there may be some dark clouds on the FOI horizon, some of which are already dropping a few raindrops on our heads.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has remained without an appointed Information Commissioner for almost two years, and there is no indication when, or even if, a new Commissioner will be named. This is not a ceremonial position, but one that involves the judicious exercise of significant power, crucial to the overall operation of the FOI regime.

While I think it is fair to say that the ICO team and I have done a credible job in the last 21 months, the absence of an appointed Commissioner undermines the workings and credibility of the ICO and the Law. For instance, because the office is so small this single, critical vacancy greatly impedes the ICO’s capacity to conduct proactive compliance investigations, thus allowing greater leeway to government in how it chooses to handle requests for access.

The FOI Law itself has been in the news more than expected in the last year, not least because of the plans of the Cabinet to amalgamate the ICO with a number of other oversight bodies. In my opinion these plans are ill-conceived at best. The general public, the ICO and the Office of the Complaints Commissioner deserve better. The independence of the oversight bodies should not be encroached upon, and what little (if any) savings could result from this scheme is surely not worth the risk of undermining the trust which the public has cautiously invested in us over so many years. In the end it will be for the lawmakers to decide whether and how to amend the FOI Law and the principles that underpin it, but I would ask that, before any changes are made, each of us carefully consider the important democratic rights that are invested in the Freedom of Information Law: government openness, accountability and public participation in decision making.

While these discussions continue to reverberate, the work of Information Managers, Chief Officers and the staff of the Information Commissioner’s Office goes on much as before, as we continue to ensure that the public gets what it is entitled to: either the information asked for, or an explanation under the law why that information should be exempted from the general right of access that is guaranteed in the FOI Law.

So let us celebrate the many successes of FOI, but also recognize that eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty!

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Category: Government oversight, Politics, Viewpoint

Comments (10)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I am quite disturbed how my friends that work for the government can sit on facebook for 8-12 hours a day posting jibberish don’t they have something better to do or are they doing FOI releases

  2. Anonymous says:

    Those of us in the know are very well aware that Mr Liebaers has been the real force behind the Information Commissioner’s office and the decisions released over the past few years, notwithstanding the fact that the credit went to someone else. Ah so it go in Cayman. Mr Liebaers has one “flaw’ – he is not a Caymanian, either born or driftwood. It is to be hoped that he will not be replaced by some born stumblebum who needs to be moved from some other position. I would suggest to him, however, that he is not helping his cause by constantly expressing his opposition to proposals to combine the offices of the Complaints Commissioner and Information Commissioner. Supposing the decision is made to combine them, Jan. Are you going to resign because you have been so opposed to the EY suggested combination? That would be a loss to us all but remember they will replace you in the blinking of an eye.

    • Anonymous says:

      A stumblebum you say? That would mean being hand-picked from the upper echelons of the civil service elite. Someone far more ineffective than that can be easily arranged and lauded in the name of Caymanization.

    • Anonymous says:

      Someone been drinking the Kool aid! The merger is to silence one source of CIG criticism. Don’t even think it’s to do with saving money, that is not in the PPM dictionary!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well said Mr Liebaers. I hope someone in CIG is listening, but sadly I doubt it. Whilst I think current government is a lot more responsible than its predecessor, it is by no means responsible enough and fails on even the most basic of information sharing. Good luck to you.

  4. Anonymous says:

    No mention here of the $500K the ICO spent on lawyers fees to fight the still unfinished Aina report FOI case? If there’s one thing guaranteed to kill off any process it’s putting a price like that on it. The ICO needs to be pushing for a system like the UK’s First Tier Tribunal where dissatisfied FOI applicants can take their case before an independent review panel without resorting to lawyers and for limits on how much CIG can spend getting lawyered up to fight FOI applications.

    • Anonymous says:

      Which draft of the Aina Report do you want? This one or this one? I am showing them to my new puppy now. PS You are never going to see them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I notice that abrasive lady that used to work with you, Jan,and gave your office a terrible name by her attitude has been promoted in the normal Caymanian civil service way in another Ministry. Please make sure if you replace her it is with someone who can handle people decently and with respect as is laid down in the Code of Conduct. Otherwise, keep up your good work.

  6. Mt Mole Hill says:

    While I do not disagree with any of the views expressed by the FOI Commissioner, there is an other side to the story. Some call them “Mickey Mouse Requests” but those of us who have to deal with them call them simply “Fishing”. No, I am not the Information Manager, though I don’t envy him his job. They just get passed up or down the line for answer.

    Typical request: “In the year 21 October 2012 to 21 October 2013, how many communications did your Ministry receive which included the words or phrases ” {enter the words or phrases of your choice here}” Honest answer? Absolutely no idea, we don’t record that sort of information. We could find out, but it is going to cost an absolutely disproportionate amount of time and resources. Ah, we can decline the request for these very reasons. Headline the next day?

    “Ministry of Bad Governace and Many Secrets denies FOI request on technicality.”

    We have a job to do that you all pay us to do. Let us do it. If you think we are doing it wrong, tell us. Don’t make us take up your time determining the average shoe size of all Ministry employees.

    • edumication says:

      If you had a decent IT system it would take you about 3 + 2342 minutes, or less, to search for the phrase asked for. The only reason it would take the extra 2342 minutes is because the head officer and the lawyers would need to review it.

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