St Helena Online

St Helena Online

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out

UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle

St Helena Freedom of Information: screen grab of Facebook page
Support the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign by clicking ‘Like’ on its Facebook page (see Links, below)

A call for more open government on St Helena has been backed by a leading group in the UK.

In a message of support, Katherine Gundersen of the London-based Campaign for Freedom of Information says open, honest debate leads to better decision-making.

It could also help to reduce public distrust of government.

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out
The logo of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

An increasing number of documents are now published on the St Helena Government website, though one executive councillor has told St Helena Online that some departments are less open than others.

But the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign argues that there is a vital gap in the information made available to islanders – and British taxpayers, who provide the bulk of St Helena Government funding.

It says papers going before the island’s executive council should be made public in advance of meetings. In England, that’s required by law. It also wants minutes of meetings made public – not just reports by Governor Mark Capes.

If agendas and reports are published in good time, individuals can scrutinise the information being presented by officials, and make sure that councillors are aware of public opinion before meetings take place.

It also means Saints overseas can keep track of what is happening at home. And it would remove a barrier to reporting by journalists and internet bloggers, which is acknowledged in the recent White Paper on overseas territories as a vital part of maintaining democracy.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information says: “We support efforts to improve public rights to information in St Helena.

“Freedom of information has many important benefits. It strengthens individuals in their dealings with the state. It increases the opportunity to participate in decision-making and enables more informed public discussion.

“The knowledge that the public may be able to see the documents on which decisions are taken helps to deter malpractice and to encourage politicians and officials to be more rigorous in their analysis, improving the quality of decision making.

“It helps to promote more honesty in government, by making it more difficult for public bodies to say they are doing one thing while doing something else.

“Moving towards a more open regime gives government the opportunity to show that it is genuinely acting on behalf of the public; is willing and able to justify what it does; that it tells the truth and deserves the public’s trust.”

Katherine Gunderson has also lent advice to the island campaign, which was initiated by John Turner and backed by the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online.

She advises highlighting examples of unnecessary secrecy and the damage done by it, and also explaining how the rights of the public – not just the media – would be improved by greater access to information.

She points out that very few “serious democratic governments” still reject the freedom of information ideal.

St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent have evidence that some officials resist the case for open government, but there are strong indications that some councillors are very supportive.

SEE ALSO:
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

Ann's Place, sketch

St Helena Online is six months old. Happy reading

by Simon Pipe, editor

St Helena Online is six months old today – 20 July 2012. Although a couple of features were posted on the site at the back end of 2011, it was not until January that it became properly active.

Ann's Place, sketch
The first post: Ann’s Place

One day, a yachtie’s drawing of Ann’s Place in Jamestown popped up on the internet, and it became the subject of the first post of just over 350 that have been published this year. I’m still a little way off my millionth hit.

Initially the site was intended as an exercise in blogging as part of a master’s degree course at Coventry University, but it developed into a full-blown news website, now partnered with – but not part of – the St Helena Independent.

Today, I enrol on Birmingham City University’s online journalism course in order to use the site as my final MA project, and keep it going for a few more weeks – which, regrettably, I wasn’t able to do at Coventry.

Part of the project will be to attempt to find a way to make the site “sustainable”. It will never make money. The likelihood is that it will not be viable to continue it in its present form after I submit my work for final assessment in mid-September. At the Indy, editor Mike knows there will not be so many stories for the paper each week from then.

I hope to find a justification for keeping the site going in some form, probably with occasional articles. It could even become a project for another journalism student.

In the meantime, it’ll go quiet for the next few days. I’m off camping. Please enjoy reading the site… while you can.

I’d like to thank the many people who have given practical help or shared their wisdom, of which there has been much. It is an exciting time to be writing about St Helena – even from 5,000 miles away. Best wishes…

SEE ALSO:
Ann’s Place – a sketch

£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent

An adviser is being recruited to help deal with weaknesses in St Helena’s public services. The job will include making the island’s budget system more transparent.

The £46,000-a-year role is to guide the modernising of public service on the island – in an affordable way. It includes developing a new approach to budgeting, looking to the medium term future.

The advertisement says the job includes “improving transparency” and “addressing existing gaps and weaknesses”. It will also involve testing the soundness of financial systems, and educating senior staff.

It says St Helena Government seeks someone experienced in public service reform, ideally in a small island setting, with “a confident and pleasant demeanour”.

SEE ALSO:

‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

LINK:
Modernisation adviser – job advert

St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not good for democracy.

St Helena’s elected councillors are making decisions that will set the course of the island’s future, but we are rarely told what they will talk about in advance.

That means people cannot voice their own concerns, and possibly raise problems that the officials in The Castle didn’t know about.

In England, councils must tell the public what they will discuss at meetings, without anyone having to ask. It’s the law.

That also means publishing all the background reports, which provide the media with the facts they need to tell the public what’s going on.

It doesn’t happen on St Helena.

It is also a requirement under the Freedom of Information Act that English local authorities publish the minutes of their most important meetings.

At the moment, all we get is a report by Governor Capes. It might tell you something was discussed, but not necessarily what was said or decided. It hardly counts as public scrutiny.

St Helena does not have a law on open government. The government in Jamestown says it observes the spirit of UK freedom of information laws.

But when it comes to ExCo and LegCo meetings, it really, really doesn’t.

Making such information public is called transparency, and the senior UK politician who is bankrolling St Helena’s airport says it is vital to a healthy democracy.

Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, told St Helena Online in May: “It matters because it allows people to be accountable for what they are doing. Sunlight is a brilliant disinfectant.

“Openness and transparency, explaining things to people, makes a better government, and that’s why we support it so strongly.”

But Mr Mitchell also said he would not want the UK to impose a freedom of information law on St Helena. It was for the island’s elected councillors, he said, to decide how to make SHG more transparent.

After he made his comments, island blogger John Turner launched a Facebook page called Transparency St Helena. Its supporters included former bishop John Salt. It was a start.

Today, the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online join forces with John under a new campaign banner: St Helena Freedom of Information.

We know we have a good case, because only last week, further indirect support came in the UK government’s White Paper on its overseas territories, which spoke of the importance of having proper scrutiny of public affairs in Britain’s far-flung islands.

It said: “This important work helps strengthen the people’s trust in government, and encourages greater public participation in decision making.”

It also quoted the Seven Principles of Public Life that some other territories have adopted, including one on openness:

“Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”

St Helena Government says the UK’s Freedom of Information Act would be too cumbersome for a small island administration. Maybe. So let’s have a debate about what would be reasonable.

Councillors, you heard Mr Mitchell. It is time to lead St Helena into the sunlight.

SEE ALSO:
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper
AUDIO: International Development secretary on transparency
LINK:
St Helena Independent
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog

‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle

St Helena Government says it is committed to open government, even though it has not adopted the UK’s Freedom of Information laws.

It said: “We do honour the spirit and intent of the Act, but without adopting its cumbersome formality. This is simply a practical reality particular to the island.

“Within our limited resources we issue a huge amount of material: for example, close to two hundred news items in the last four months,  plus a host of other publications, such as the Sustainable Development Plan (St Helena’s 10-year vision), the Sustainable Economic Development Plan, and a Draft National Environmental Management Plan Framework.

“Publications such as the Land Development Control Plan (including the Housing Strategy and Land Disposal Policy) were the subject of exhaustive public consultation, as are many other initiatives.

“You will also have seen numerous newsletters from ourselves: for instance, the fortnightly Airport Update, the Enterprise St Helena newsletter and a variety of public notices in newsprint and on air.

“Other examples include publication of the Memorandum of Agreement with Shelco, the fact that our financial performance will now regularly be updated on the SHG website,  plus high level meetings being open to the public: for instance, the recent ExCo session and first Enterprise St Helena board meeting.”

A spokesman defended the fact that many ExCo discussions take place in private – unlike top-level local authority meetings in the UK. “As ExCo is the highest executive body in SHG, it is effectively our Cabinet (in UK terms). One would not expect UK Cabinet meetings to be open or public. And ExCos in other territories are also mostly held in private.”

St Helena Online has received detailed information on a number of stories – including on treatment for sex offenders and the future of St Helena’s prison.

It has also made use of material in reports on the SHG website, including candid concerns about the standard of education on the island, in the draft sustainable development plan.

It was also able to report frank statements by the director of education at a public meeting on maths teaching.

There have been other times when information has been requested, but not made available.

A message from SHG has pointed out that it “may have to disappoint” if too many time-consuming queries are made. However, the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign has begun by asking only for agendas, minutes and accompanying reports to be made public – and this is information that has already been compiled for councillors.

SEE ALSO:
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

LINKS:
St Helena Government – key information
St Helena Government – news
St Helena Freedom of Information – campaign website

Technical problems at St Helena Online

Technical problems in accessing the “dashboard” for this website have caused significant delays in posting and updating stories. Access has been intermittent. Please bear with us. Contact Simon Pipe via Facebook, or email simonpipe01@gmail.com if you have problems using the site.

St Helena Online is almost back to normal

St Helena continues to generate far more stories than one journalist (in the UK) can keep up with. The quota of news per head of population must be among the highest in the world. It doesn’t help that a technical problem has blighted this news website, and personal life has got in the way as well (taking my daughter to her first university open day).

A backlog of stories will be cleared as soon as possible, including the third part of Andrew Gurr’s reflections on his four years as St Helena’s immediate past governor. It is hoped the results of this week’s by-election on the island, and a public meeting about a shortage of teachers at Prince Andrew School, will be published by Thursday morning.

Thank you for bearing with it.

Simon Pipe
Editor, St Helena Online

 

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