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Why Pati holds key to meaningful debate

Speculation about the reasons for a decision, or the true cost of a project, has been elevated to a fine art after years of living without an access to information law.

Our country's refinement of this skill began with generations of late-night talks around the dinner table trying to pin down the true reason for such-and-such a decision. With the emergence of digital news and social media, the ability to speculate — widely, wildly, and wondrously — has reached new pinnacles of achievement.

This speculation can be engaging, until one takes a step back and comprehends the amount of energy, resources, and time that are lost to it when the public is not informed about the facts.

How different could the quality of our public debates, and our discussions about core issues important to us, be, if both the public and decision-makers had accurate facts and information?

The Public Access to Information, or Pati, Act finally introduced the ‘Right to Know' in April 2015. Through Pati requests, individuals can begin to get facts about the reasons for decisions, what factors decision-makers look at (or don't look at), the true figures behind public spending, and much more. A Pati request isn't a Parliamentary Question. A Pati request isn't an examination by the Commission of Inquiry.

A Pati request isn't a question from the Public Accounts Committee.

A Pati request puts Right to Know directly in the hands of the public. It's that simple.

The Pati Act gives each Bermudian and resident the chance to make public life better.

For this year's International Right to Know Day, the Information Commissioner's Office launched a JUST ASK! campaign to raise awareness about how to make a Pati request and to encourage people to continue making them. Each of you can ask for public records about things such as healthcare, employment, public spending, the environment, education, public contracts, and any other issues that are important to you. In March 2016, 79 per cent of residents 18 years old and older felt that Pati rights are important to them. Yet, 55 per cent were unlikely to make a Pati request.

To help encourage people to use their Right to Know, we launched our JUST ASK! campaign.

You will see and hear our awareness video, radio ads, social media engagements, and JUST ASK! information tables this week as part of the campaign.

Our future leaders will enter public life having grown up with the Right to Know in their hand. For these young people and schoolchildren, the ability to know the facts behind public decisions and spending will be as routine a part of public life as the right to vote.

Can you begin to imagine that future? We can. And we aim to support those in our community and in the public bodies who are reaching towards that goal.

Are we there yet? No. Much work remains. The Right to Know is a robust, legally enforceable right, but currently one that moves slowly at times. It is also not yet possible to file a request anonymously, a critical protection in smaller jurisdictions such as ours. We also need to improve the records collection, storage, and management practices for some public bodies so that public records are correctly managed and can be located easily in response to a Pati request.

We have just begun to take steps towards a time when the Right to Know is not feared or disparaged, but embraced by all as an important tool for our democracy. No, we are not there yet. But we are steadily and strongly making our way to that day. The ability to get there rests with each of you. JUST ASK! Make a Pati request.

Gitanjali Gutierrez is the Information Commissioner for Bermuda.

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Published September 28, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated September 28, 2016 at 7:46 am)

Why Pati holds key to meaningful debate

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