Beyond the Freedom of Information Law

In today’s Times, Reinvent Albany executive director John Kaehny says there is a “General consensus that city and state agencies’ compliance with the Freedom of Information Law ‘has been sliding over the last decade.’” The article focuses on a new effort by Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio to get NYC agencies to comply with state FOIL law. We strongly agree with DiBlasio that FOIL is “not an optional matter.” But, we need to get beyond the letter of FOIL and start championing its basic intent — making government information easily available to the public. Unfortunately, FOIL are used  far too often to get routine information that state and local governments should be posting online in easy to find and use forms.  The FOIL experts we have consulted estimate that roughly 80% of Freedom of Information requests are for information that clearly does not raise privacy, security or intellectual property concerns. Rather than complaining about the “FOIL burden,” city and state agencies should use FOIL requests as a tool to figure out what the public is most interested in, and put that information online first.  If large numbers of FOIL requests are for personal information, like school records, agencies should figure out how to make that information available online in a private and secure format, as the NYC Department of Education has done with it’s Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS.) In our Executive Orders study, Reinvent Albany offers shows exactly how Governor Cuomo can use FOIL and Information Technology to open up state digital information to the public, and save the time and money of responding to unnecessary FOIL requests.  Mayor Bloomberg, or his successor, can do the same.

NY:$6.6B/Yr Biz Subsidies as Roads, Bridges, Transit Crumble

New York State and local governments are not broke. Far from it.  They spend an estimated $6.6 billion/year subsidizing businesses in the hope they will create more jobs and economic activity.  Despite this,  in recent years, New York has suffered higher job losses than the rest of the country, after lagging in  job creation for decades.  The Citizen Budget Commission’s excellent new report,   Avoiding Past Mistakes, details how business tax breaks, subsidized financing and direct grants have created a complicated tangle of bureaucracies and programs, but not many  jobs.

CBC’s report includes sensible recommendations for the Cuomo administration’s economic development policy and ten newly created Regional Councils.  But really, New York needs a completely new economic development strategy. It needs to stop subsidizing individual businesses, and start investing in public transportation and power infrastructure that benefit everyone and creates jobs directly.  We are listing CBC’s recommendations below, because they broadly apply to many state and local government programs in New York.

Summary of CBC Recommendations

1. Tame the Hydra: Consolidate hundreds of economic development councils, Development Authorities and programs into the Regional Commissions.

2.  Standardize Performance Metrics for All Programs and Pay Only for Results.

3.  Improve Transparency with More Comprehensive Disclosure Requirements
and a Unified Economic Development Budget. (Yes, see also Show Us the Subsidies: An Evaluation of State Government Online Disclosure by Good Jobs First.)

4. No Additional Funding. (This at a minimum. We would prefer an end to almost all tax expenditures and IDAs.)

Governor Cuomo’s “Open NY” Campaign Pledge

As attorney general, Andrew Cuomo created the cutting edge Project Sunlight. This powerful website tracks political and lobbying expenditures and state contracts.  As a candidate for governor, Cuomo proposed harnessing the Information Revolution for the public benefit with “Open NY.”  We like Open NY a lot, and would like to see Governor Cuomo launch it now. Open NY is a smart, and inexpensive, packaging of everyday technology — websites, mobile computing, social media —- with a new commitment to open information, that has the potential to vastly increase the state’s transparency, accountability and responsiveness.  Open NY takes tools and policies that many states and the federal government are already using, and combines them into a more powerful and effective whole. We especially like Open NY because  it promises a host of potential public benefits beyond open government.  Government digital information is like nuggets of gold buried within a mountain. These nuggets have  enormous potential value to job creating businesses, researchers, the general public — and people in  government who can’t see or use data held by other agencies. Open NY promises to unearth that digital treasure and put it to use. It also seeks to make it easier for government to make state services easier to use and cheaper,  and provide the public with up to date notices they need. The exciting thing, is that Open NY is easily doable.  It uses Information Technology that the people of New York use everyday.  It’s time our government joins us in the Information Age.  It’s time for Governor Cuomo to launch Open NY.

Excerpts from Open NY

Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Up Albany campaign book, Chapter 5, Open NY

Open NY will use the Internet to make New York State government more transparent and accountable than it has ever been before.

Open Information
Open NY will make government information available via a central website, which will serve as an information catalog and clearinghouse in an easily accessible format. Additionally, we will strive to create a network of Open NY websites for each State agency and authority controlled by the Executive.

These websites will contain a downloadable catalog of the agency’s data, and include a powerful search feature. These Open NY “agency” websites will have a simple, uniform design, and focus solely on the open information and transparency initiatives in Open NY. They will augment, not replace, current agency sites.

Open NY will use the power of the Internet to promote a new era in transparency and openness in the New York State government. We will open up the State budget and show how State agencies are spending their tax dollars. We want the public to know how, and how well, the State is spending taxpayer dollars. For example, online contracts with State vendors will be placed on Open NY. Once Open NY gets contracts with vendors online, information will steadily be added including agreements for all grants, tax credits and other forms of subsidy and spending.

Part of the goal is to post an online spending report card, or dashboard, which will make it clear what taxpayer funded projects are working and which are failing.  New Yorkers deserve a clear explanation of how the State taxes and spends within the State budget.

Open Collaboration

Open NY will use the Internet and social media to promote participation and collaboration, which spurs innovation and fosters public opportunities to improve government—a new kind of public participation. It is an invitation to the people of New York State to use the powerful information tools we use every day to open up our government and make it work better. Open NY will be used to reconnect people to government.

Together, we can use Open NY to make our government easier to understand, more accountable, more innovative and more cost effective. New and revamped websites will show the public how much the State is spending, how and where we are spending it, and what results that spending is achieving.

New Yorkers will be able to look online and see what policies the State is promoting, and what public agencies are doing. Open NY will use the Internet as a simple but powerful tool to transform the culture of our state government from secrecy to public openness.