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Pati: ‘practice codes’ still not released

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

“Critical” guidelines to ensure civil servants deal properly with public access to information requests have yet to be released, more than two years after the law came into effect.

The absence of the “practice codes” was flagged up by information commissioner Gita Gutierrez in her office’s first annual report last year, when she warned that without them the public could not have faith that their confidentiality would be safeguarded.

Ms Gutierrez told The Royal Gazette this week: “I look forward this year to the ongoing consultation process for the codes. My hope is that the end result will be a significant contribution to the infrastructure to support good Pati practices for public authorities.”

The Public Access to Information Act 2010 allows citizens to request publicly held records from more than 220 public authorities and was enacted on April 1, 2015. Information officers have since received more than 240 requests.

Section 60 of the Act requires the relevant Minister — in this case, Michael Dunkley, as Premier — to release codes of practice for public authorities regarding the administration of the new law and the “maintenance and management of records of public authorities in a manner that facilitates ready access to the records”.

The new Policy and Strategy Section within the Cabinet Office is the department responsible for Pati and for producing the guidelines, in consultation with the commissioner, as well as, in the case of management of records, the government archivist.

Ms Gutierrez said: “The Minister’s practice code on the administration of the Pati Act and the practice code on records management are critical how-to guides for the people who have to make the Pati Act work.

“Like Financial Instructions, the two Pati practice codes will guide the public authorities’ day-to-day management of their information assets and responsibilities under the Act.”

The Cabinet Office said at the start of last year it was “on target” to release the codes by the end of March 2016.

But it is understood that a decision to merge the Central Policy Unit and the Sustainable Development Department into one entity — the Policy and Strategy Section — has slowed down progress.

A spokeswoman said yesterday: “Pati is relatively new legislation and quite comprehensive and, like any large, all-encompassing organisation, there have been some challenges.

“However, we do believe that it is being appropriately managed. Information officers have been trained and there is more training slated for later this year; refresher for existing staff and training for those new to the information officer role. The information officers are able to respond to requests in a timely manner. We are working with the information commissioner’s office to finalise the codes.”

In January, the Cabinet Office told this newspaper that information officers were receiving ongoing training “to ensure confidentiality remains paramount”.

In May 2015, six weeks after the Pati Act was enacted, Public Works Minister Craig Cannonier named Walton Brown as a Pati requester in Parliament, in breach of the law’s confidentiality requirement. And earlier this month, Mr Dunkley was accused online of potentially identifying a Pati requester.

In a Facebook thread, an individual posting under the name Sam Smith shared an e-mail he had obtained about an opinion piece purportedly written by One Bermuda Alliance MP Nandi Outerbridge but actually authored by the Premier’s adviser Don Grearson.

Mr Dunkley responded: “In full disclosure, you perhaps should mention that you obtained the e-mail through a Pati request. In addition, [Mr Grearson] works as a writer. Not sure what your story is here.”

Sam Smith then alleged that the Premier had appeared to “flirt with a breach of confidentiality under Section 57 of the Pati Act” prompting Mr Dunkley to respond: “I am assuming, as I don’t know who asks any Pati question and I don’t wish to know. How else could you get an e-mail?”

This newspaper understands complaints have been made about Mr Dunkley’s remarks to the information commissioner’s office.

Ms Gutierrez declined to comment on the matter.