Open Government, Vital To Nation Building – Information Minister


Government is committed to the access to information initiative and is going all out to ensure that the public is fully informed about the opportunities at their disposal and the procedures involved in accessing official government documents.
Information Minister Senator Burchell Whiteman, who addressed scores of students at an Access to Information/Values and Attitudes forum at the University of the West Indies, recently (February 17), reiterated that “open government is vital to nation building”.
He said too, that the Access to Information (ATI) Act is one element towards creating an “open, more respectful society, which we all would like to see.”
The Information Minister cited the use of the Joint Select Committee system in Parliament, where Senators and other representatives, Opposition and Government meet and the discussions are open to the public. He pointed out that this was one of the ways in which the Government was ensuring that the public had an input in the running of the country. Civil society has already made representations on matters like the Terrorism Prevention Bill and the Property Rights of Spouses Bill.
“The Access to Information Act is the latest in a series of measures designed to increase openness and accountability. We started in the early ’90s to open the committees of Parliament to the Press and the public…the whole process of opening up to the public has been in progress,” the Minister pointed out, adding that there was also the Political Code of Conduct, which had been adopted and substantially applied.
He noted also that the Corruption Prevention Act, which had been passed, was now in force. “Work is well advanced on the Charter of Rights, and now comes Access to Information,” Minister Whiteman said.
The Information Minister also pointed to a significant difference between Jamaica and Barbados, where the latter “consciously invested in social capital” and this he said largely accounted for their successes.
“That really meant building trust between the Government and the governors and the wider society, whereas we have tended to be a little more divisive and encourage competitiveness in the society…and so we are suffering from that now,” the Minister lamented.
“One of the things that the country has suffered from is that we have not really built relations of trust as a conscious national endeavour. So what we have is a lot of distrust between government and the people,” he continued.
Minister Whiteman said that citizens should keep abreast of the country’s laws and know their rights under those laws so as to make more informed decisions. He then charged the students to empower themselves to make positive and valuable contributions to the country.
The Access to Information Act 2002, which grants the public access to most documents held by government departments and public authorities, became effective on January 5 this year. The implementation process however, began with seven entities with full implementation in all other ministries and agencies by 2005.
The entities, which formed Phase 1 of the implementation process include, the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office, Ministry of Finance and Planning, Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport, Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) and the National Works Agency (NWA).
Phase 2 will see the ATI Act implemented in the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Commerce, Science and Technology, Ministry of Education, Youth and Culture, Ministry of Water and Housing, the Accountant General’s Department, Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) and the Urban Development Corporation (UDC).
Phase 3 will comprise the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Ministry of Transport and Works, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of National Security and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, while Phase 4 will comprise the Ministry of Industry and Tourism and the Ministry of Land and Environment. The entire implementation process is expected to last 18 months.
The Act aims to reinforce fundamental democratic principles vital to transparency, accountability and public participation in Government. This means that the public can now seek to be further informed on matters pertaining to government contracts, the environment, public health and the administration of public funds.
Access to Information (ATI) or freedom of information legislation, as it is called in some jurisdictions, has existed since 1766 and is in force in more than 47 countries such as the United States of America, Australia, Canada, most of Europe, South Africa, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago and Belize.

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