It is taking much longer on average for the Cayman Islands government to respond to open records requests than it did three years ago.
However, public information sought in those requests is being released more often than in any year before, according to the Information Commissioner’s office.
“We can fairly accurately say it is taking government far longer to respond to requests,” said Deputy Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers. “But we can also accurately say government is becoming more open.”
According to records compiled by the Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s Office, the average time it was taking public authorities to respond to freedom of information requests was 26 days. As of June 2012, that average time had jumped to 59 days.
The “mean average” for response was 21 days in 2009 compared to 30 days at the middle of this year.
Mr. Liebaers said the latter figure shows government entities are still mostly within the 30-day timeline for FOI responses required under the law, but just barely.
“The 30-day timeline to respond [to FOI requests] is often seen as a target, rather than the maximum allowed by law,” Mr. Liebaers said. “We’re reaching the point next year where perhaps we’ll have to report where government is not complying with the 30-day timeline.”
However, it’s not all bad news from an open records perspective in Cayman.
When just considering open records requests that have been either denied or granted within the past budget year [between July 2011 and June 2012], 69 per cent of those requests involved records that were partially or wholly granted.
That’s the highest percentage of records being granted under the FOI Law than any previous year.
“More requests are being granted over time,” Mr. Liebaers said.
Despite the slower general response time, Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert said these figures show that the law “is being taken seriously and that a culture of openness is starting to take
hold in Cayman.
“The public is using the law,” Mrs. Dilbert said. “FOI is making a difference in people’s lives and in the Cayman Islands.”
What is difficult to determine from government’s statistics, Mr. Liebaers said, is whether the delays in responses are
costing more money.
“Costs are largely associated with secrecy rather than with openness; to provide those records is a lot less costly than to withhold those records,” he said. “But as we see, as the average response times go up it doesn’t really translate into greater secrecy.”
A small number of open records requests are proceeding to the “hearing” stage; that’s where the information commissioner must make a decision on whether government information should be released. Only 1 per cent of all open records requests are the subject of those hearings.
In 21 hearings over public information requests in three-and-a-half years, the information commissioner’s office has yet to see one of its decisions challenged in the Grand Court, as is permitted under the FOI Law.
“It’s been threatened, but hasn’t happened yet,” Mrs. Dilbert said.