Work has begun in earnest on ending the entrenched culture of secrecy within St Helena Government – but one councillor has questioned whether it should be a priority.
Open government became a key issue in the island’s July 2013 general election, a year after the launch of a campaign on St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent.
Campaign member John Turner, who set up the St Helena Freedom of Information page on Facebook, says a planning meeting was “entirely positive.”
“I’m sure that Freedom of Information legislation for St Helena is only a few months away,” he writes.
Next steps are for the government’s social and community development committee to agree what should remain secret, how information should be presented, and how to settle disputes over whether information should be released.
“In the meantime, council continues to operate on the basis of openness: that data should be published unless there is a good reason not to. A welcome change!”
Seventeen councillors and FOI supporters attended the planning meeting on Monday 9 September 2013.
Afterwards, Councillor Ian Rummery told SAMS Radio: “This has to be fit for purpose for St Helena. We don’t want to put in a whole new bureaucracy which is not maintained or just becomes so overly bureaucratic that it just doesn’t work.”
Councillor Tony Green told the station he was concerned about spending time and money on drafting a new law.
He said: “The principle of freedom of information, I don’t have a problem with and actually, I think it’s very important.
But he went on: “I don’t actually believe that we should at this particular time be devoting resources to putting up freedom of information draft legislation and setting up a regime when there are more perhaps important things.
“I’m thinking about social policy, I’m thinking about benefits.
“I need to know how much it’s going to cost – also how it will affect other priorities.
Many people will agree with Councillor Green when he says that issues such as benefits should be given higher importance that something that may seem idealistic.
He believes in open government, but he’s got legitimate, pragmatic concerns.
But without transparency, and open decision-making, how do we know councillors are really acting in the interests of the vulnerable, and everyone else?
Open government is better government, and some high-ranking people have said so. Secretive government is bad for democracy.
Is it any surprise that many Saints were disenchanted with past administrations, and that councillors were voted the least trusted people on the island in a recent survey?
The governor has complained about a lack of public engagement in democracy, and yet his government actively dis-engaged the people by hiding information from them, in clear breach of their human rights.
Why should anyone have trusted a government that operated in the shadows, and refused to trust its own people by letting them know what it was doing in their name? How could people be engaged in decision-making when it happened behind closed doors?
Members of the previous council nearly all declared themselves to be in favour of open government.
But when asked if open government should actually be practised – by holding Executive Council meetings in public – they nearly all said “No”.
The logic of that one is difficult to grasp. Maybe Governor Capes had good reasons for dissolving the last council early.
The present councillors have imposed a new policy of openness, with every sign that they mean it.
But there are strong grounds for fearing that a future legislature might revert to the bad old ways of the bad old days, unless there is legislation in place to prevent it.
Councillor Green is right: this is not the best time to be drafting laws that won’t put food on the plates of the poor.
The best time was a long time ago.
But the alternative is that we simply trust future governments, with the risk that they will go back to spending many millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money with virtually no public scrutiny, and little to prevent them making bad decisions.
On the basis of past form… No.