Removing a Culture of Secrecy with Information


For many years public servants have been duty-bound by the 1911 Official Secrets Act not to release certain information to the public. However, by the end of October, all this will change, as seven Government entities will be mandated under the Access to Information Act to supply information to the public.
The implementation of the Access to Information (ATI) Act was to take effect on October 1, but the date has been pushed back to allow for the ATI Regulations to be passed by both Houses of Parliament.
With an October deadline still set for the implementation of the Act, how prepared are the seven government entities, which for years have operated in a culture of secrecy where information is held close to the chest?
JIS spoke with two Government ministries about the level of preparedness for the implementation of the Act.
Consultant to the Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport and President of the Jamaica Association of Records Managers, Pam Thompson says, “what we did at the Ministry of Local Government was to start with our records and to look at classifying them and indexing them in such a way that we could retrieve them easily.”
She says that this activity took six to eight months and so far some of the information has been posted on the Ministry’s website. “We have used technology because we recognised that without new technology there is no way that the records management process could work,” she adds.
Mrs. Thompson explains that all information, regardless of the medium will be classified in the same way, “so that when you request information we will be able to say it is either a paper file, a video cassette or it is an electronic record and where it is located.”
“We have spent a lot of time on training and we have worked very closely with the University of Technology (UTech) and IBM, you need to have new technology in this system and we have worked with these agencies along with the Jamaica Archive and the ATI Unit to put together a course to get people ready for ATI and for records management as well,” she informs.
Despite this level of preparation to make information available, the Consultant says that the process will not be easy. “It is a mindset that needs to be changed, it is a culture that needs to be changed,” she says.
Continuing, she declares, “although we have gotten all the theoretical things in place, there is a lot of work that needs to be done with interpretation, so we are hoping that through a simulation (exercise) it will identify the gaps that we may still have”. Mrs. Thompson says that some staff members have already been trained in the area of customer service, noting that the training “that has gone so far, not only speak to the interpretation of the Act, but the whole customer service aspect of things and all I can say is training and more training.”
“We have a cultural tendency here to hold onto information .everything is a secret so it is really a big mindset to us,” she concedes.
Mrs. Thompson says that at the implementation date in October, “I don’t anticipate that we are going to get it right on the day but I do believe that we have the number of things in place to enable us to have a good stab at it.”
Helen Rumbolt, Director of Information and Documentation Services at the Ministry of Finance and Planning, says that the Ministry has implemented a records management database to deal with the listing of all the official records for the October implementation of the Act.
“Our Ministry has been working feverishly to meet the deadline for the Access to Information Act. We have in our Ministry implemented an electronic records management database to deal with the listing of all our official records, began indexing these records, highlighting the various subject areas of these records that when the public comes to us they will be asking for subject areas or specific documents,” she explains.
She says that the Ministry was also in the process of placing additional documents that have already been published, such as ministry papers, on the website. Additionally, a library will be opened to the public.
In preparation for the implementation of the Act, Miss Rumbolt says that the Ministry has had sensitisation sessions for the entire Ministry staff and also customer service training for officers.
“We are looking forward to the implementation of the Access to Information Act and we will invite the public to come in and ask for information,” she says.
The Director of Information and Documentation Services says the Ministry would be putting in a one-stop desk, where an officer will be appointed to speak to members of the public.
Explaining how this area will work she says, “there will be somebody appointed to speak with that person and a reference interview will be conducted to ascertain the documents that the persons would be asking for. We will acknowledge receipt of that request and within the 30 day time period will ensure that if those documents are available that it will be made available to the public.”
Diane Young, Public Education Manager at the Access to Information Unit says that at a date to be announced in October, seven entities will be obliged to provide the public with information held in documents that they request on ATI application. The government agencies/departments include the Office of the Prime Minister; the Cabinet Office; Ministry of Local Government, Community Development and Sport; the National Works Agency; the Jamaica Information Service (JIS); the Planning Institute of Jamaica, and the Ministry of Finance and Planning.
Miss Young explains that the implementation of the Act would take some time, pointing out that, “what we find on an international level (is that) implementing Access to Information legislation is not an easy process and others have had teething pains and we expect to have them too but we have been learning from their experiences so that our pain will not be unbearable.”
Continuing she says, “we know that it is a paradigm shift that is taking place, moving from secrecy to openness and we have recognised this and we have had several workshops and we have encouraged several government agencies to include in their training programme change management as part of the things that they deal with and the system that they set”.
“We remind public officials that in order for a good change to take place, they need to change and for you to be stagnant will not help the process,” she says.
All other Government agencies and Ministries are expected to come on stream by October 2004. Under the Act, the public will have the right of access to official documents held by the public authorities, subject to exemptions, which balance the right against the public interest in exempting from disclosure of governmental, commercial or personal information of a sensitive nature.
Jamaica is the second Caribbean country to have passed an ATI Act, after Trinidad and Tobago.

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