In March 2012, six of the largest federal open government watchdogs and journalism organizations wrote to the Office of Management and Budget in support of the then-nascent FOIA Online portal. Today, FOIA Online is a national best practice and model for this legislation. The portal has tracked tens of thousands of FOIA requests over the last three years. The American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, two journalism advocacy groups, signed this letter, which read in part:
“The FOIA portal offers the best hope for improving the administration’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and affording the public the broadest access to government documents.”
In June 2014, a nationwide coalition of over 50 good government groups signed on to a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee supporting the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014 (FOIA-2014). This bill, which passed the House unanimously, would codify the existing FOIA Portal, which is currently a voluntary pilot program spearheaded by the EPA. In addition, FOIA-2014 expands the annual FOIA reporting requirements for federal agencies and requires they publish raw data underlying the reports.
Compared to the existing Federal FOIA regime, OpenFOIL’s proposed reporting requirements are modest. Nonetheless, prominent national journalism groups once again signed on. The American Society of News Editors, Freedom of the Press Foundation, National Security Archive, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists all support legislation creating a FOIA portal, and requiring agencies provide raw data (not just reports) about FOIA.
OpenFOIL Reporting Requirements Compared to Federal FOIA
|Reporting Requirements||FOIA (1967)||E-FOIA (1996)||Open Gov Act (2007)||F-OIA 2014 (Proposed)||NYS FOIL (1974)||NYC Open FOIL|
|Number of Determinations||No||Yes||Continued||Continued||No||Yes|
|Number of Appeals||No||Yes||Continued||Continued||No||No|
|Exceptions Used (Number)||No||Yes||Continued||Continued||No||No|
|Median Processing Time||No||Yes||Continued||Continued||No||No|
|Average Processing Time||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||Yes|
|Range of Processing Time||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||No|
|20 Day Response Intervals||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||No|
|FTE Staff Time||No||Yes||Continued||Continued||No||No|
|10 Oldest Requests||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||No|
|10 Oldest Appeals||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||No|
|Expedited Process Requests||No||No||Yes||Continued||No||No|
|Number of Dispute Resolutions||No||No||No||Yes||No||No|
|Number of Proactive Uploads||No||No||No||Yes||No||No|
|Number of Paid Late Requests||No||No||No||Yes||No||No|
|Raw Statistical Data||No||No||No||Yes||No||Yes|
Co-Sponsors of Intro 328-2014
NYC Council Members Ben Kallos, James Vacca, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, Fernando Cabrera , Costa G. Constantinides, Elizabeth S. Crowley, Vincent J. Gentile, Peter A. Koo, Rory I. Lancman, Rosie Mendez, Daniel Dromm , Carlos Menchaca, Helen K. Rosenthal, Corey D. Johnson,Brad S. Lander, Jumaane D. Williams, Margaret S. Chin, Stephen T. Levin, Deborah L. Rose, Mark Levine, Ydanis A. Rodriguez, Antonio Reynoso, Ruben Wills, Annabel Palma, Andrew Cohen, Karen Koslowitz, Laurie A. Cumbo, (by request of the Manhattan Borough President)
- MBP Gale Brewer – testimony below
- Reinvent Albany – testimony
- NYPIRG – testimony
- Citizens Union – testimony
- League of Women Voters NYC – testimony
- 596 Acres – testimony
- Sunlight Foundation – testimony
- BetaNYC – testimony
This joint hearing was also on creating a searchable city record website and a publishing the city laws online in a fully searchable database. The full hearing can be viewed on video.
Below is the full testimony given by MBP Gale Brewer:
The proposed legislation for an online freedom of information law (“FOIL”) request tracking portal would greatly benefit New Yorkers. This portal would centralize the process of requesting records from City agencies for the public, and vastly streamline every step of the process of responding to FOIL requests for records access officers. It would catalyze the City open data initiative by allowing for analytics-based publication of open data sets. It would simply improve public access to information, and do so while saving taxpayers over $13 million per year.
What the FOIL Portal Does
The portal offers numerous benefits to the public and agencies:
- All requests and responses are archived and publicly searchable. Members of the public will see if their question has already been asked and answered. Records access officers will avoid repeat requests for the same information.
- Records officers will upload responsive documents to the portal and “attach” them to the applicable request, where records access officers will review them.
- Redacting records will also be done within the portal itself, without the need to print, manually redact, and re-scan thousands of sheets of paper.
- FOIL responses will no longer be mailed on CDs if they’re too large to email. Records officers will upload responses to the portal for public download.
Reason for Support
New York City will save at least $13 million annually by implementing an open and automated FOIL process through the OpenFOIL portal. This savings will come from improved efficiency in the FOIL response process at City agencies. There are roughly 50,000 FOIL requests filed in the City, and at an average cost of $400 per request, the FOIL regime costs $20 million annually. Automated FOIL processing technology like that included in the Open FOIL portal has reduced the cost of FOIL responses by between 66% and 90% elsewhere, which represents savings of at least $13 million.
Groups in Support
- 596 Acres
- Advocates for Children
- Alliance for Quality Education of NY
- Brennan Center for Justice/ NYU LAW
- Citizen Action
- Citizens Union
- Common Cause
- Community Service Society
- Community Voices Heard
- Good Jobs New York
- League of Women Voters NYC
- Legal Aid Society
- NYC Environmental Justice Alliance
- NY Civic Engagement Table
- NY Lawyers for the Public Interest
- Make the Road by Walking
- Participatory Politics Foundation
- Pratt Center for Community Development
- Reinvent Albany
- Sunlight Foundation
- VOCAL – NY
- Transportation Alternatives
- Tri-State Transportation Campaign
- West Harlem Environmental Action
- Women’s City Club of New York
- Beyond Magic Markers: a Reinvent Albany report on the cost savings of Open FOIL
- Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s 2013 FOIL Report Card
- Memo in Support
- Reinvent Albany Testimony to NYC Council on June 9, 2014
- Key Facts about Privacy and OpenFOIL
- Fact Sheet about Benefits of OpenFOIL
- Reinvent Albany’s Fiscal Impact Statement
- NYS Department of Health “Smart FOIL” Implementation
Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer and Council Members Ben Kallos and James Vacca are introducing an Open FOIL bill today to create a centralized, searchable database of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests sent to City agencies.
The online database would allow members of the public to both file FOIL requests and search previous ones. Information would include the date each request was filed and documentation of its progress. The site would be developed by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Office of Operations.
A 2013 report by then-Public Advocate, now-Mayor Bill de Blasio, identified that 10% of New York City FOIL requests are ignored, 40% of City agencies do not include FOIL information on their websites, and response time varies dramatically between agencies.
“I have long been committed to open access to government data, and nowhere is this more important than a Freedom of Information Request – which is one of the most common ways average citizens request government information,” Brewer said. “New York City must keep pace with other progressive cities around the world, which is why I am introducing this legislation.” Brewer’s record on municipal transparency includes passing laws requiring Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to be posted online, monthly 311 data reporting, all Executive Orders and Memoranda of Understanding to be posted online, all City agency hearings be webcast, and New York City’s Open Data Law, which is the most progressive open data legislation ever adopted by a municipality.
“Justice Brandeis had it right: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. This Open FOIL law will create new levels of transparency and accountability in government,” said Kallos. “It is ironic that our best tool for transparency, FOIL, has remained so hidden. Mayor de Blasio’s ‘Breaking Through Bureaucracy’ report, issued when he was Public Advocate, demonstrates the extent of the problem and proposes greater transparency as part of the solution. All New Yorkers should have access to information requests and FOILed information.” At the beginning of his career in public service, Ben Kallos used the FOIL process to put Albany voting records and conflict of interest information online so New Yorkers could hold politicians accountable. Council Member Kallos serves as Chair of the City Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, where he has fought to bring reform and transparency to government agencies.
“OpenFOIL is a transparency homerun for New Yorkers. It will transform the creaky, opaque, unreliable, paper-based FOIL process into an all online, central system, that is fairer, faster, and more accountable,” said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany. “It’s a great irony that FOIL, the City’s most important transparency tool, is itself a black box. Nobody knows how many FOIL requests agencies got in 2013, if they responded, or what they were asked. With OpenFOIL we’ll finally know, and based on the federal experience with automating FOIL, taxpayers will save $10 million a year.”
“This is win-win legislation,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It will save City agencies millions by reducing the cost of complying with Freedom of Information requests. At the same time, OpenFOIL will make it a lot less frustrating for the public to get answers to their requests.”
“OpenFOIL is the next step in transparency for New York City, building on important successes around open data,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union. “By moving freedom of information requests online in a trackable database, New Yorkers will have a more efficient and accountable system of receiving important government information. Further, agencies themselves will now have the tools to better understand what the public wants, and to respond proactively in releasing needed information.”
“The proposed legislation for an online freedom of information law (‘FOIL’) request tracking portal would greatly benefit New Yorkers,” said Cathy Gray, Vice President of the League of Women Voters of the City of New York. “This portal would centralize the process of requesting records from City agencies for the public, and vastly streamline every step of the process of responding to FOIL requests for records access officers. It would catalyze the City open data initiative by allowing for analytics-based publication of open data sets. It would simply improve public access to information, and do so while saving taxpayers $10 million per year.”
“The proposed OpenFOIL bill will ensure a 21st century freedom of information law that provides egalitarian information access for the people and transparency. This OpenFOIL bill will ensure a government for the people and for the 21st century,” said Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC.
On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg, accompanied by City Councilmember Gale Brewer and members of the NYC Transparency Working Group, signed a bill requiring that all public meetings be live-streamed and archived on City websites. The Transparency Working Group congratulates City Council for sticking with this bill, originally introduced in April 2010, and giving New Yorkers a window into the public deliberations of their government.
The new bill, Intro 0132-2010, reads:
Each city agency, committee, commission and task force and the council shall record or cause to be recorded in digital video format its meetings and hearings, or portions thereof, that are required to be public pursuant to article seven of the public officers law, provided that this section shall not apply to community boards or local school boards. Such recordings shall be webcast live, where practicable, and shall be archived and made available to the public on the city’s website or on the website of such agency, committee, commission, task force, or council, not more than seventy-two hours after adjournment of the meeting or hearing recorded.
The New York City Council’s Committee on Technology is holding an oversight hearing on DOITT’s administration of the New York City Open Data Law this Wednesday, November 20th at 1pm. The hearing will be at 250 Broadway, on the 16th floor.
Members of the NYC Transparency Working Group will attend to share their views on this critical piece of the New York City open data initiative.
The NYC Transparency Working Group strongly supports the NYC Open Data Law and believes it has, overall, been a big success. The broad intent of the law is being realized, and it is achieving its goal of pushing City Hall and agencies to make much more data available. Our groups very strongly believe that the DOITT and City Hall staff time needed to implement the Open Data Law should continue to be fully funded.
Prior to the Open Data Law, there was no mandate for city agencies to proactively share their data with the public. The creation of that data sharing mandate has led to the release of hundreds of new data sets, including the PLUTO and ACRIS data sets which have long been sought by planners and academic researchers working on affordable housing and transportation issues.
Additionally, our groups appreciate the power of the API (Application Programming Interface) features on the city’s data portal, which essentially streams data to public users, and powers countless mobile apps. The potential of this feature to link data to users in other agencies, levels of government, and the public is barely being realized. However, it is being recognized. The Open Data Law is widely considered a global best practice, and has drawn government officials from Tokyo, Berlin and the United Kingdom to visit, and speak with the New Yorkers who helped create it.
Read the full report: NYC Open Data Law Progress and Challenges.
On Thursday, President Obama issued an executive order building off his earlier orders and OMB memos like the Open Government Directive, the Managing Government Records Directive, and projects like the Open Government Platform. It’s called “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information“, and it continues to push federal agencies toward meaningful open data. The OMB has placed a number of major requirements on federal agencies:
- Create datasets from collected information with the expectation that data will be used by other sources; keep information machine-readable.
- All agencies must internally catalog and index their datasets in both human- and machine-readable formats.
- Agencies must publish the portions of the indexes containing datasets which could be made public. (e.g. which do not contain Federal secrets or social security numbers or the like.)
- Agencies must create a forum for public dialogue, where members of the public to request certain datasets be prioritized over others.
These are all promising steps, and the White House has created a Github repository with best practices and policies for agencies to learn from and share their experiences, as well as case studies, tools, and various written resources for officials and open government advocates alike.