In a long-awaited move to increase government transparency, the first set of weekly Cabinet decisions was released to the public last Thursday.
“The publicising of Cabinet decisions marks another milestone in this territory’s journey as a politically mature jurisdiction that is willing to embrace the principles of openness, transparency and accountability, which are also central to an effective and proactive communication process,” Governor Gus Jaspert and Premier Dr. Orlando Smith said in a joint statement.
The leaders promised that a summary of Cabinet decisions will be released by the Cabinet Office each Thursday following the confirma- tion of minutes from the previous week’s meeting.
Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie (R-D1) applauded the move, which he said his Virgin Islands Party has long been pushing.
Though the VIP never publicised Cabinet decisions when it held power from 2007 to 2011 in spite of calls to do so, Mr. Fahie described the measure as “a victory for the people of the Virgin Islands that the Cabinet of the Virgin Islands,thus far,has found favour with at least one of the legislative items on the VIP legislative agenda.”
Mr. Fahie, though, added in a message to the Beacon that he believes there are more related steps the government should take to- ward accountability, including publicising the resolutions passed by each statutory board “except where there are security concerns.”
Other British overseas territories — including Montserrat, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands and Anguilla — also publicise Cabinet decisions in various forms.
Calls for the VI Cabinet decisions to be publicised go back years. In 2010, an editorial in the Beacon pointed out that the public often learned about important decisions long after they have been made,and suggested that the govern- ment follow the lead of other nations around the region such as St. Kitts and Nevis, which at the time was already releasing regular post-Cabinet briefings soon after meetings occurred.
“Certainly, some of the body’s discussions would be classified for obvious reasons, but routine business should be reported shortly after it happens,” the editorial read.
In the statement, Mr. Jaspert and Dr. Smith said that the weekly updates will not be the only communication channel on Cabinet decisions, and will not prevent ministers from making separate announcements, which may still come via press conferences, press releases, statements, interviews and other avenues.
Following confirmation of the minutes, a summary of Cabinet decisions will be published by the Cabinet Office, and the decisions will appear in the government’s Gazette and on Twitter. However, Mr. Jaspert said at a press conference last week, minutes detailing Cabinet discussions — which under the law can’t be released for 30 years — will not be disclosed.
“Those are private discussions,” he said. “It’s the end decision that is a government decision, and that is what will go out.”
Some matters pertaining to national security, personal data or privacy also will not go public.
“The Cabinet secretary has guidelines on those, and also the premier and I do a check on that as well,” the governor said.
According to Dr. Peter Clegg, a lecturer at the University of the West of England in Bristol who studies OTs, the VI’s guidelines put it “somewhat ahead of the curve,” noting that Bermuda’s Freedom of Information legislation, both Cabinet discussions and decisions are exempt from disclosure. He added that both Cayman and the Pitcairn Islands contain similar guidelines to the VI for what is exempt from disclosure.
He and Dr. Smith pointed to a need for a systematic and consistent approach to in- forming the public of the workings of the Cabinet, and to helping the community “understand and appreciate the functions and operations” of the highest policy-making body in the executive branch.
“It is also our hope that this initiative would encourage greater public participation and strengthen the public’s confidence in the decision-making process of policies, which af- fects their livelihood in some way,” they said.