No money, no information – Commissioner of Info cites budget cuts in spurning request

No money, no information.

The Commissioner of Information, Charles Ramson SC has denied a request made by Transparency Institute Guyana Inc (TIGI) under the Access to Information Act for a copy of a US$660,000 contract for a financial management system for government ministries; Ramson cited budget cuts.

President of TIGI Anand Goolsarran made the request via a letter to Ramson last Monday. TIGI in a statement to the media said its directors have decided to release the correspondence to the public. “We have learnt through the media that two of the seven modules of the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMAS), which was implemented in 2004, have not been activated. These are the Purchasing and Asset & Inventory modules,” Goolsarran said.

“Since IFMAS is an integrated automated system involving all seven modules, we would like to understand why these two modules were not implemented; bearing in mind that purchasing, assets and inventory are perhaps the most important aspect of the Government’s financial management system, accounting for some 70 per cent of the national budget,” he wrote.

“Because of the above, we respectfully request that you provide us with a copy of the contract for US$660,000 between the Government of Guyana and the Canadian firm for the development of a custom-built automated financial management system,” Goolsarran said.

In a letter on June 11, Information Technology officer A. Moffatt, responding as directed by Ramson, denied the request citing budget cuts. “As you are aware, and it is assumed that your acute concerns are national rather than partisan in nature, the budgetary allocations to this Office have been excised from the Estimates for 2014,” the letter said. Moffatt added that the foreseeable consequences needs to concern the Institute equally with the effect it will have on the morale of the staff, production and productivity.

“Regrettably, therefore, your request even if contemplated by the Act creating this Office, (cannot) be considered until such time that retroactive approval is given for resources to be made available to this Office,” the letter said. “A rudimentary perusal of the aforementioned Act will inform you of a mandate conferred on no less a person than H.E. the President, to provide the Commissioner with the appropriate resources,” it said.

“In the words of the famous Calypsonian, Mighty Sparrow, `no money, no love’. No doubt, your Institute, if at all influential, could ameliorate the disastrous consequences visited upon workers in general,” the letter asserted. The flippant nature of the reply by Ramson’s office which began with the salutation “Dear Comrade” will likely raise concerns among TIGI and other stakeholders interested in the robust functioning of the access to information act.

Last month, Attorney General Anil Nandlall said that no person or organisation had yet made use of the Access to Information Act though he neglected to mention that up to February, a list of public authorities as well as procedures to be followed to request documents had not been published in the Official Gazette as required by law.

The list of public authorities was eventually published late last month in the Guyana Chronicle, more than two years after the passage of the Act.

Nandlall had made the comment in response to remarks by US ambassador Brent Hardt at a reception hosted by the diplomat at his residence in observance of World Press Freedom Day. The US envoy had endorsed the findings of a report by the International Press Institute (IPI) that investigated the media landscape in Guyana last year, which, among other things, said that journalists in Guyana view the difficulty of obtaining information from the government as one of the primary obstacles to doing their job well.

“Guyana did take a positive step toward greater transparency in 2011 with the passage of the Access to Information Act, but there have unfortunately been delays in implementation. While the appointment of an Information Commissioner is welcome, IPI pointed out that, to be effective, transparent, and independent, this position should be adequately staffed and separated from the Office of the President in keeping with international standards,” the ambassador said.

In February, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds told the National Assembly in a written response to questions by AFC parliamentarian Cathy Hughes, that Ramson, who was sworn-in last July, is being paid a salary of $1.2 million per month. He also said that two additional members of staff were employed. Apart from his salary, Ramson also receives an allowance for cell phone calls.

Hinds also revealed to the National Assembly that up to that point, there had been no publication in the Official Gazette and in a daily newspaper of information on public authorities, documents in their possession for inspection and the procedures to be followed when request for access to a document is made, among other things.

The Freedom of Information Act was passed in September 2011 and has been criticized as flawed.

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