Beyond the Freedom of Information Law

October 20, 2011

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.