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The Pati Act begins with you

Right to Know: Gitanjali Gutierrez (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Citizens, activists and journalists have used the ‘Right to Know’ to reveal the details of public-private contracts for offshore oil drilling in Mexico and to seek reports about the Tempura corruption scandal involving the police and judiciary in the Cayman Islands.

Information requests by two British journalists led to a parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 that crossed political lines. The revelations were followed by MPs’ resignations, sackings and prison terms — and the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Although not as extreme, our country is also wrestling with economic, political, and social challenges. There is disagreement (and, sometimes, stark polarisation) about the correct solutions. People across the political spectrum, though, share a common desire to improve our country. Many share concern for the children who will inherit the consequences of today’s decisions. While there are less noble examples of exploiting public opportunities for personal gain, or adopting a plunder-the-sinking-ship-attitude, this is exactly the conduct that is held to account when the public uses it’s new ‘Right to Know’.

Since April 1 of this year, the new Public Access to Information (Pati) Act gives everyone who cares about our country — the decision-makers and those affected by the decisions — a chance to ensure that our democratic process produces the best possible decisions that it can.

The Pati Act creates the right to access records held by public authorities. Today, for the first time in our history, we join more than 100 other countries with information access laws to celebrate a crucial human right: the Right to Know.

For a requester, the Pati Act should be almost as simple as posing a question on social media. The only difference is that once you write it, you will need to submit it to the public authority’s information officer.

For now, you must also have Bermuda status or residency to have a right to appeal a denial of your request — although any person can just ask for a record. In some cases, making a request has not gone this smoothly, but it should. Everyone is on a learning curve, and our office is committed to helping public authorities understand how to make the request process work easily.

Essentially, to make a Pati request, you just need to write it down and drop it off.

The public authority works on your request, and then sends you an answer. If you are unhappy with the response, you can ask for an internal review (an appeal) by the authority’s head. Ultimately, though, the teeth in the Pati Act come from your ability to then ask the Information Commissioner for an independent review.

The importance of the independent review is huge. No matter what happens inside the public authority, you have a chance to ask the Information Commissioner to consider the public authority’s actions and issue a decision.

The Information Commissioner’s office is independent of Government and the public authorities. When applying the Pati Act’s provisions to decide reviews, I will be guided by our office’s values of independence, integrity, and fairness to both sides. Critically, if a public authority ever fails to comply with a decision from the Information Commissioner, the Commissioner can enforce the decision through our courts. This includes a decision that the requester should receive access to the record.

Equally important, both the requester and public authority can seek judicial review of the Information Commissioner’s decision. This gives all parties a right to further independent review, as well as scrutiny of the Commissioner’s actions.

The robust Pati process begins with you, the requester. It requires you to make a request and start the machinery rolling.

The Pati Act is not a quick fix, or the latest political manoeuvre. It doesn’t ‘belong’ to any political party any more than the right to vote does. Instead, the Pati Act is a fundamental, neutral tool in the ongoing improvement of our democracy. Its steady progress is something we should all be proud of.

The new rights under the Pati Act also require a significant cultural change, within and without public authorities. This isn’t going to happen overnight. For decades, we have lived with a very different Westminster-influenced system. Decisions — big and small — are made behind closed doors, and often given to the public with little reasoning. The Pati Act introduces a profoundly different relationship between decision makers and the public. One that recognises the public’s right to access the underlying public records which explain the decision making. This is critical for accountability.

In the years ahead, the transparency delivered by the Pati Act may not be easy, and most certainly will be uncomfortable for some.

But schoolchildren today will grow up knowing they have a right to understand how and why public bodies act and decide. When these children govern our country, sit on boards, run our government departments and public authorities, and organise our communities, the Pati Act won’t be threatening or unfamiliar. They will look back and wonder why such a to-do ever arose over allowing the public to understand the how, why, what, and how much of public decision making.

Gitanjali Gutierrez is the Information Commissioner for Bermuda. To learn more about International Right to Know Day or the new Information Commissioner’s Office, visit www.ico.bm, contact 294-9181 or info@ico.bm, or visit the office, Valerie T Scott Building, 60 Reid Street, Hamilton.