Carole Excell is visiting Bermuda at the invitation of the Bermuda Government to take part in the public consultation process on the new PATI Bill.

This law can assist in promoting democratic governance by giving the public a right to understand how government makes decisions and ensure greater transparency and accountability in government practices and processes. Access to information is a fundamental human right which is recognized in international human right laws and then implemented through legislation like our PATI Law.  

 

Carole saw her role here primarily to share her experiences over the last 5 years in Jamaica and Cayman in assisting in processes to ensure the effective passage, implementation and enforcement of a right to know.

During her trip she hopes to share her understanding on how to ensure that our law meets international standards. This is really a law about ordinary people and how they interact with government and help to set agendas.

  Freedom of information is critical for a number of reasons. This was probably best said by President Obama in his first day of office when he stated: "The way to make government responsible is to make it accountable. And the way to make it accountable is make it transparent so that the (American) people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent."

The public in Bermuda needs to advocate for a law that meets its local circumstances and is more progressive than neighboring countries like Jamaica, and Cayman and then accept the challenges that implementation brings. This type law has had real benefits in other countries.  In the UK the FOI law was utilized to show discrimination in journalists' salaries as between men and women.  In Jamaica the law was used by child advocacy organization to reveal the deplorable conditions of children in government and private homes for abandoned children and get the government to make new efforts to ensure proper regulation of these homes. In Cayman the law has been used to obtain access to information on childhood obesity, travel expenditure of civil servants and the number of juvenile crimes over the last five years. This law has also been important for civil servants who in numerous countries have spoken about the benefits that have been gained..

Once you have finalized your law you will have to address the challenges that all governments face. There have been many lessons learned over the past decade regarding the obstacles to effective implementation, such as a lack of resources, difficulty in changing the mindset from one of secrecy to openness, and poor record keeping and record management. Promising transparency is one thing, delivering it is quite another. It is not sufficient to simply pass a right to know law; laws will be meaningless if not well implemented in practice. The 3 key elements to me to move from complete secrecy or total discretionality to openness are political will, public education on the law and information management capacity.

First, there needs to be sufficient and sustained political will, to change civil servants to become advocates for more openness and the public to feel they have a right to request information from government public.

Second, the law itself must be drafted to accord with best international practice and implementation in mind and the public needs to be educated on their right to information.

Finally, effective implementation relies on effective management of information and appropriate rules and process on retention of records. Implementation of the law is therefore a joint partnership between the holders of information (government or the private sector) and the requesters (citizens, civil society organizations, media etc.). Recognizing that there is dual responsibility helps us understand the nature of the challenge and contributes to the design of viable solutions.

I wish you the best of luck to succeed in the hard work you will need to do, to reach the benefits of a fully implemented access to Information regime.