27 August, 2009


It was so good to see Nat Hodge doing an editorial recently on the need for a Freedom of Information Act in Anguilla that I am spurred to add my two cents worth. The model that we have that we can follow is the Cayman Islands FOI. Their law passed in 2007 only came into effect in January of this year 2009. There is not much reporting on how it is working. What little has come out is very positive and encouraging.

It is important to realise that it is not sufficient just to pass a law. We also have to take steps to make sure that it works.

Introducing FOI in a traditional colonial, secretive administration involves a change of culture. That is arguably the tallest order. The mere passing of a law does nothing to accomplish this change. FOI does not function at all in some countries. The emphasis may have been mistakenly put on the legislative process and not enough on the practical meaning and its implementation.

FOI is only as good as government’s underlying record keeping practices. If the information is not recorded or preserved in the first place, then the right is meaningless. How good is record keeping in the Anguilla public service? Is it legally framed? Who has the power to authorize destruction of records? What are the checks and balances in this regard? How do you avoid public meddling? Who is actually accountable for records and information in the Anguilla Public Service?

The first step is a Public Records law. At least, there needs to be a serious update of the Standing Orders combined with an ongoing records management programme. There need to be standards, education, help and monitoring in relation to the management of public records. This is an absolute prerequisite for a successful FOI programme. This is usually a function of the national archives office, something that we have not even begun to think about in Anguilla.

How do you balance the right to access with the legitimate need to keep some things secret for the time being? Should the public interest override any or all exceptions? Should there be a right of appeal against decisions? What form should this take, and what powers should an appeal body have?

The Cayman law provided for the appointment of an “information manager” in each department and public authority. Two people were trained in each department to cover vacation and sick leave. These are the access points for the public.

Someone has to do a lot of preparatory work to make sure the system works. It is not only a matter of training the frontline people. There will be a need to hold special sessions for ministers, permanent secretaries, and other general staff. Some departments or public authorities may decide they need to hire new staff if they expect complicated requests for access. Some may actually hire a lawyer to be in charge of their record management/freedom of information units. Most will simply assign the dual duties to existing staff, revising their job descriptions and pay.

What do we do about personal information? What is ‘personal information’ in Anguilla? What is the state of privacy in Anguilla? How do you balance the general right to access with the legitimate expectation of privacy amongst government’s clients, staff and citizens alike?

The public and civil society should have a chance to provide input on each of these issues before a law is even drafted.

Writing the law is the easy part. Getting it to work is another matter.

But, even discussing it is a really important step if we are really serious about accountability and transparency in Anguilla in the future.

Related previous posts:

24 May 2009 - Airport News

21 May 2009 - Airport Costs

19 July 2008 - FOI Act

1 comment:

  1. The previous topic in this blog on the expansion of the airport provides a good example of why we need FOI in Anguilla. PS Larry Franklin gave a full and honest answer to a question that concerns us all, and he is indeed to be commended for it. But why is this so remarkable? Why do we all stop and praise him? Why is this the exception and not the rule?

    Democracy is about more than electing representatives to take care of our country's business every five years, and then sitting back. That would amount to no more than a revolving dictatorship.

    It is too often forgotten that government works for the public, not the other way around. That means government must be accountable to the public, not just in a financial sense, but also by being open and transparent about how it conducts its business, what decisions it takes, and, yes, how it spends OUR money. Transparency should be a right - not dependent on the whims of the person receiving the request, not dependent on whether the answer may be embarrassing or politically inconvenient, not dependent on whether the action taken is popular or not, but, simply, a right to know what actions government takes on our behalf.

    Without FOI getting an answer depends on the goodwill of government - as positively demonstrated by Larry Franklin - but while that may work some of the time, it is clear from all the outstanding questions on previous construction projects that that is not enough.

    Maybe the documentation on the previous construction projects simply was not kept, or can't be found. While that may explain why it would be hard to answer the questions raised, it is no excuse, which is precisely the point I think IDMitch was trying to make: even if we had the RIGHT to know what government does, disclosure of the information will still depend on good record keeping, and Anguilla is shamefully lacking in this regard.


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