Low Grades for NYC Agencies on FOIL

April 25, 2013

Yesterday, New York City’s Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, published the results of a citywide study on the state of New York’s Freedom of Information Law in the form of a series of report cards. De Blasio FOILed 38 city agencies, measured their response times, rated agency compliance through a snapshot of over 10,000 requests, and issued grades to the 18 most frequently-FOILed agencies. From the report, some of Public Advocate de Blasio’s most important findings are:

  • The process for submitting FOIL requests to City agencies and tracking their status is inconsistent and can be extremely challenging for the public to navigate. 40% of City agencies lack information on their website about where to direct FOIL requests. Neither 311 nor the City’s Green Book provide this information.
  • For the three months of FOIL data analyzed, nearly 1,000 individuals or groups had not received an approval or denial determination after more than six months of waiting – that represents one-in-ten requests that were either ignored or fell through the cracks. While these non-responses represent de facto denials, the lack of firm response impedes the appeal process and legal action.
  • When City agencies responded to FOIL requests, response times varied dramatically by agency. Only 7% of requests to the Department of Education received a response within 30 days, whereas 86% of requests to the Department of Transportation (who received eight times more requests) received a response within 30 days.

While only two agencies (NYPD and NYC Housing Authority) received failing grades, there is plenty of work to be done citywide; fully 10% of all FOIL requests are either lost or ignored, and at problem agencies, that number soars to over 30%, according to the report. Reinvent Albany thanks Public Advocate de Blasio for drawing public attention to the haphazard and murky way that New York City is following the state Freedom of Information Law. New York City is supposed to be in an era of open data and data driven government. Yet, New Yorkers’ single most important transparency tool — FOIL — is being disregarded, gamed, and neglected by city agencies far too often. One simple step the city could take: agencies should be publicly rated as part of their basic performance as part of the Mayor’s Management Report.