Beyond Magic Markers: Open, Digital FOIL for NYC

This is the first in a series of posts describing the transparency, accountability, and financial benefits of an Open FOIL system for New York City. Our full report is titled Beyond Magic Markers, and is available here.

Responding to FOIL Requests Costs New York City 
At Least $20 Million per Year

An Online “Open FOIL” System Can Save 
$13 Million a Year and Reduce Response Times

New York City open government advocates strongly support the creation of an “Open FOIL,” centralized, online FOIL processing system. It will increase transparency, reduce delays, and create a fairer FOIL system for all. But Open FOIL has a big additional public benefit: It will save New York City government upwards of $13 million a year.

New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has guaranteed public access to many types of government records since 1974. This venerable law – which applies to New York City – is the single most important transparency tool New Yorkers have, and is relied upon by journalists, advocates, and the public to keep track of what the state and New York City governments are doing. Unfortunately, the paper based process used by city agencies to respond to FOIL requests is slow, unreliable, expensive and opaque.

Unlike federal agencies, New York City agencies do not use digital to tools to redact privileged information. Instead, they use magic markers to blot out private information. Additionally they , do not collect or report basic data about how many requests they receive, the nature of those requests, or how much it costs for them to respond.

Despite the lack of NYC agencies’ analysis, we can estimate the volume and cost of New York City’s Freedom of Information Law regime. This is thanks to the 2013 Breaking Through Bureaucracy report by NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, as well as extensive data on the costs of public records requests collected by the United States federal government and United Kingdom’s central government.

We estimate that, at minimum, New York City government spends $20 million annually processing FOIL requests; this is based on a conservative estimate of 50,000 annual FOIL requests, and a low average cost of $400 per FOIL request.