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Right to know: ending culture of secrecy

Opening doors to the public: Gitanjali Gutierrez, who believes over time transparency will no longer seem such a big deal(Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Bermuda’s “secretive” system of government will be cracked open when the first major disclosures under Pati are made, according to the Island’s first information commissioner.

Gitanjali Gutierrez said the Island’s Westminster system was traditionally secretive but the culture would change as citizens began to understand the kind of information they could access.

“In other countries, when they first got the law, it was quiet until a big story or two came out,” she told The Royal Gazette in an interview to mark today’s International Right to Know Day 2015.

Citing the scandal of MPs’ expenses in Britain, which stemmed from freedom of information requests made by journalists, she added: “The use of their law expanded after that. People realised what kind of information they could get — and the impact that it could have.

“The original information request cracked open the secrecy and then it went beyond one or two MPs. It became a big exposé of a systematic abuse of public money by members of parliament.

“We haven’t had anything like this yet [in Bermuda]. I think it’s inevitable that a few requests will get a lot of attention and then we may see more frequent use of the Pati Act — especially because under the Westminster system, decision-making is traditionally secretive and the Pati Act is changing this.

“This is going to be a long-term change in our democracy. It’s going to take some time for people to understand that — not just elected officials, but everyone working in a public authority.

“Over time, people who grew up with the Pati Act will move into public authorities knowing from the outset that what they do is transparent. It won’t be as big a deal.”

The commissioner, a human rights lawyer who represented a high-profile Guantánamo Bay detainee before coming to Bermuda, said the culture here regarding transparency was “very different” to the United States.

One of her key roles, she said, was to help change that by raising awareness of the law and how it can be used.

To that end, she will hold three information sessions this week, beginning this evening (Monday) at 6pm in the Cathedral in Hamilton. Tomorrow’s (Tuesday) session will be in the Upstairs Theatre of the World Heritage Centre in St George’s at 6.30pm and there will be one at Dalton E Tucker Primary School in Southampton at 7pm on Wednesday.

Ms Gutierrez will also take part in a live online question and answer session with this newspaper at 10am on Thursday, when readers are invited to quiz her on Pati and transparency.

“To help people understand how to use their Pati rights, I’m using some key examples of other countries,” said the commissioner.

“It will help people understand what kinds of information they can ask for. We can also think about what it means to have the Pati Act with an election coming up in 2017.

“In the US, groups like Crowdpac and Votesmart are non-partisan organisations that prepare candidate scorecards. Their goal is for voters to be more informed, period.

“Groups like this will include information about how well a candidate has been doing his or her job. They might track how often they attended sessions, voted, sat on committees and so on.

“It goes beyond what political positions they took and looks at whether they were doing the job the public expected them to do.”

Ms Gutierrez said though Bermuda hadn’t developed similar organisations yet, groups and individuals could use Pati in this way to assess election candidates.

“If a person is, or was before, drawing an MP’s salary, is this person doing the job? Through the Pati Act, the public could request things like an election candidate’s overseas travel spending when in office.

“If you have a shadow minister who was once a minister, maybe you want to see how do they compare with the current minister when they were spending public money.

“The accountability available under the Pati Act supports good democratic practices here.”

She cited other areas of public concern, such as the economic and environmental impact of the America’s Cup, education reform and development, where Pati could help citizens get the “information they need to have a meaningful conversation with decision makers”.

She added: “These records could include things like assessments, impact statements, reports and e-mail or written correspondence.”

Neither the Cabinet Office nor Ms Gutierrez could share the number of Pati requests made since April 1, when the legislation went into effect, but an internal tracking system means the figures will be included in the commissioner’s first annual report. She said there had not been an avalanche of requests in the first six months, adding: “There almost never ever is when new information access laws are enacted; it’s just this slow, steady change that happens.”

When Pati requests from Bermudians and other residents are turned down, those asking the questions have the right to request an internal review and, if that fails, an appeal before the commissioner.

Ms Gutierrez has already had six appeal applications, though two were deemed to be premature and therefore invalid. One appeal was resolved and three are pending.

“What I think is critical to the effectiveness of the Information Commissioner’s Office is fairness, integrity and independence,” she said.

“That can’t be compromised because if someone is denied a request and they want to appeal to this office … they need to know they are going to get a truly fair hearing.

“It is equally important that public authorities trust that they will receive a fair process and chance to be heard. Our goal is that when we resolve an appeal, not everyone will be happy with the result but all parties will respect and be satisfied with the process.”