By Kenichi Serino
In an exclusive interview with The Observer, Attorney General Vincent Byron said that “deep cultural change” amongst all public servants was needed to improve transparency along with the implementation of last year’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
The Federation’s Freedom of Information bill was passed into law one year ago this month. It is intended to give individuals and organisations the right to request information from the government and have those requests responded to within 30 days.
However, Byron said that in addition to the implementation of FOIL, and to make it successful, public servants would also need to change their approach towards transparency.
“That will require a lot of deep cultural change for all of us. From the very top in cabinet to permanent secretaries to clerks,” Byron said.
“There’s a general sense of having to understand that we serve the public. We serve citizens.”
Byron said that amongst some public servants the culture has not been one of “customer service” with some gaining a “sense of power” in denying requests from members of the public.
“I think it’s a culture that overtime, it gives people a sense of power, to be able to tell somebody ‘no’. Rather to see the culture as being to facilitate and assist,” Byron said.
“It’s been a government culture since time immemorial. It’s not a political party thing. It’s cultural. In a modern society we do need to change the values that we bring to the job. We can be more open”.
Byron said that transparency could be helped by publishing more information publicly, so that members of the public would not need to ask for it. He added that more government information could aid in economic activity as well as a more informed citizenry. Using an example of cut flower imports, he said that a local person could use that information to decide whether to set up their own flower-growing business.
“Government departments are perhaps the greatest repository of information in the country,” said Byron. “It can create opportunity for economic activity if you’re more open.”
“It’s a sort of ethos or spirit that has to translate to a culture. So that we’re more forthcoming rather than hiding.”
But while Byron said the Federation would benefit from a culture of transparency, he said that FOIL was not yet ready to be implemented due to a lack of resources on the part of the government.
FOIL requires government departments to hire an information officer who will handle requests from the public. However, at the time of The Observer’s interview with Byron last month only one had been hired so far–by Byron himself for the Attorney General’s office. Byron said this person was assisting in preparing for the implementation of FOIL.
“We have to develop protocols as to how you access info in government. What are the limits, the rules,” Byron said. “A lot of information across the government is scattered and not easily accessible.”
Byron said that FOIL required that requests had to be answered within 30 days and the law could not be implemented until government was prepared to answer these requests in accordance with the law. He said no deadline had been set for implementation.
“We would expect that initially on the introduction of this thing that we would start with a couple of ministries as pilot then expand it was we go along,” he said.
The attorney general said that in addition to government data being difficult to access, time and resources were delaying implementation of FOIL.
“The implication of [FOIL] is that various ministries should have officials appointed but it is a cost to the public purse,” Byron said.
He noted that while some departments and agencies might need an information officer as required by the act, smaller ones might not have enough demand to warrant a full time employee. Instead, Byron said the government was considering amending FOIL to change the nature of information officers. Instead of one for every department, several information officers would be hired for a central office which would then be tasked with visiting relevant government offices to get requested information.
“That would be more efficient,” Byron said.
Byron said that even after FOIL was implemented, some information would not be made available to the public, including matters of private health, national security and police investigations. He said that cabinet deliberations and some other meetings were also unlikely be subject to FOIL.
“Should I have members of the public come in and sit down in meetings to make sure I’m not doing anything nefarious? We should be careful about how far we go. Because it could impede business when people want to come and invest,” Byron said.
“These are concerns that clearly have to be balanced.”
Byron said that too much access to personal information of public figures could also dissuade people from engaging in public service. He said that as part of “integrity in public life” some potential public servants should disclose their assets. However, those disclosures shouldn’t necessarily be public.
“It can be very invasive and intrusive and good people, honest people may not want to work for government because it’s not worth it for them. [They say] “Sure I work with the government and I want them to know I’m honest. But at the same time I don’t want people to be talking about it on the streets”.”
“I think there’s a perception that [FOIL] has to do with the taking off the clothes of a politician but it really should be seen as one that people need to have confidence that the government is holding the trust that they’ve put them in to do a job without ripping them off.”