The Case for OpenFOIL

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
  • ALIGN
  • Alliance for Quality Education of NY
  • BetaNYC
  • 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
  • NRDC
  • NYC Environmental Justice Alliance
  • NY Civic Engagement Table
  • NY Lawyers for the Public Interest
  • NYPIRG
  • Make the Road by Walking
  • OpenPlans
  • Participatory Politics Foundation
  • Pratt Center for Community Development
  • Reinvent Albany
  • Riverkeeper
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • VOCAL – NY
  • Transportation Alternatives
  • Tri-State Transportation Campaign
  • West Harlem Environmental Action
  • Women’s City Club of New York

Resources

Manhattan BP Brewer and CMs Kallos and Vacca Introduce Open FOIL Legislation

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.