On Sunday, August 7, 2022, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) issued a press release entitled “Jamaica’s Commonwealth Secretary General Campaign Clean, Transparent, Principled” in which it gave information about the cost of the campaign for Commonwealth Secretary General undertaken by Minister Kamina Johnson Smith.
The release is not posted on the OPM website and wasn’t tweeted by the OPM Twitter account. I have posted below a copy of the text:
Often when I read statements released by government entities, I think of Access to Information (ATI) requests that could be made to get more information about the topic being dealt with. Here are some of the requests that could be made based on this release:
- Documents containing the “already established travel plans and engagements” in place for Minister Johnson Smith prior to the announcement of her candidature (As at January 1, 2022? March 1, 2022?)
- Documents containing the budgeted costs for these planned trips and engagements
- Documents containing the actual costs for these planned trips and engagements
- Documents indicating specifically when and where the Minister’s candidature was launched in London in April 2022
- Documents indicating the cost of the launch
- Documents detailing the “corporate Jamaica” entities that gave assistance for the launch & the nature and value of that assistance
- Documents indicating the specific dates of each of the 4 engagements mentioned in this paragraph & the dates when they were first added to the Minister’s schedule.
- Documents containing the budgeted cost of each of the 4 listed engagements
- Documents containing the actual cost of each of the 4 listed engagements
- Documents setting out the travel schedule undertaken by the Minister covering 7 countries/8 governments in Africa
- Documents indicating the cost of (each of) these trips/meetings
- Documents giving a detailed breakdown of the $18, 267, 575.07 expended on the campaign. (Many of the categories for the breakdown are already suggested in the press release itself. However, actual documents/vouchers/etc from the various ministries & govt agencies can actually be requested under the ATI Act. A consolidated account/report compiled in response to this request isn’t the only way to go, if an applicant wants more detail.)
- Documents providing details of the expenditure for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Rwanda of (i) $12, 827,897 by the OPM, (ii) $7,715,585.37 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and (iii) $5,131,386 by the Ministry of Tourism.
- Documents providing details of the expenditure by the government for the previous Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit, in the UK in 2018
- Documents referring to any aspect of the FINN Partners contract with Minister Johnson Smith and/or the services provided by FINN Partners. (This would include any internal memos, emails or any other form of communication.)
- Documents providing information about the individuals or entities from “corporate Jamaica” who were party to the arrangement with FINN Partners.
- Any documents evaluating the ways in which the campaign “served to strengthen bilateral relations and further enhance Jamaica’s reputation on the international stage.”
No one applicant might want to submit all of these possible ATI requests, and there are other requests that are not on this list that another applicant might be interested in submitting. This, however, illustrates that there is a lot of information that this release does not provide and that the ATI Act provides a mechanism by which further, more detailed information can be accessed.
I want to make clear that I am not here questioning Minister Johnson Smith’s qualifications, experience or suitability for the post of Secretary General. I have a lot of respect for her and her abilities.
What I am seeking to do is to point out that even where the government or one of its agencies says that it has been transparent in some regard, there are often many other pieces of information that can be requested for full transparency. To ask for further details is legitimate and the ATI Act provides the means for doing so, if someone wants to request that further information. And that does happen quite naturally in the course of seeking information about a matter…a document that is provided or released may lead to requests for further documents or information.
In a paradigm of open government, which recognises that people have a right to access all the information held by the government, with a few, specific, limited exceptions, it would be troubling for requests for information to be seen as somehow unpatriotic or to be discouraged. If the people are entitled to the information, go ahead and give it. Give as much of it proactively as is possible. Government bodies don’t have to wait on ATI requests to release information that is being asked for publicly. And follow-up questions and requests for additional information should be expected.
I have always liked Section 6(3) of the ATI Act, which says that an applicant for access does not need to give any reason for requesting access. It is an important protection for citizens, as they do not have to justify to the State the reason that they want access to any particular document or piece of information. The State should grant access or deny access in accordance with the Act. The information belongs to the people. It is held in trust by the State for them. They have a right to access it. The State has a duty to provide access.
Flawed as it is, in need of strengthening as it is, the ATI Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation to be passed in Jamaica in the past quarter century, as I repeatedly maintain. And we need to pay close attention to the pending review of the Act to ensure that any amendments to it strengthen, rather than weaken, its provisions.