Putting FOIL Online Will Massively Reduce NYC FOIL Costs

June 19, 2014

This is the third 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.

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. This is an estimate because New York City (like the state) gathers no information about agency FOIL requests.

An online Open FOIL system like federal government’s,  or  Oakland’s, will save New York City roughly $13 million per year.

Online FOIL processing systems reduce the costs of processing FOIL requests in two ways. First, they reduce the time it takes agency personnel to track and respond to each request. Second, they reduce the number of requests agencies receive. Online systems reduce requests by helping agencies easily identify and upload frequently requested information to online “reading rooms” or open data portals where that information is easy for the public to find.

Reductions in Cost Per FOIL

The New York State Department of Health’s newest version of its Smart FOIL Processing System reduced their average FOIL response time from up to 60 days to less than 20 days and reduced their backlog by 90%. Less time spent processing FOIL requests means less money spent processing the same number of FOIL requests.

The Congressional Research Service’s 2014 report on FOIA administration estimated that the FOIA Online portal will save the six agencies originally participating in the FOIA Online pilot program $200 million in FOIL costs over five years. These agencies spent about $45 million processing FOIL requests last year (see below); when FOIA Online saves these agencies $40 million per year, it will reduce FOIL expenses by nearly 90%.

This 90% in cost savings also appears in earlier estimates from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s preliminary feasibility report for FOIA Online states their online FOIA system will cut the FOIA costs at an average federal agency from about $18 million to $2 million.

Likewise, the US Secretary of Defense’s office believes that advanced FOIL processing software, which includes digital redaction capabilities, will reduce their annual FOIL costs by between 50% to 90%. The Department of Defense has already reduced FOIL processing costs by 1/3rd using processing software without such capabilities.

Reducing the Number of FOIL Requests

Based on federal studies and our own assessment of automated FOIL processing systems, Reinvent Albany estimates that Open FOIL can reduce the number of FOIL requests by at least 20%, just by identifying and uploading frequently FOILed documents to “Reading Rooms” and the city’s open data portal. A reduction in FOIL volume of that magnitude in NYC would amount to at least 10,000 “avoided” requests, and would save almost $3.5 million across all agencies.

Posting sought-after information online saves money. The EPA reduced the number of FOIL requests it receives by nearly 2,000, and saved $3.6 million in yearly FOIL costs, by putting their most frequently requested documents online. The EPA was able to pinpoint which records were most frequently requested, thanks to their automated FOIL system. For example, they learned that roughly 800 documents related to pesticides made up 20% of all FOIL requests, so they put those records online.

Today, pesticide-related documents make up just 3% of all requests to EPA, a reduction of nearly 2,000 FOIL requests. If NYC used the same approach to achieve similar savings, it would reduce the number of FOIL requests it receives by 17% – roughly 8,500 FOIL requests – from uploading just a single data set. This one step would save NYC almost $3.5 million a year, at our estimated average cost of $400 per request.

Similarly, in an interview, the US Secretary of Defense’s office said that the creation of a “Frequently Requested Documents” section of their website reduced redundant or non-applicable FOIL requests by as much as 60%.

By studying which sets of data are responsive to FOIL requests, city agencies may be able to identify databases which can be exposed to the public (or are already exposed but are not easily located). This saves processing time, not just on responding to a handful of popular requests, but on entire categories of requests.
Automated software can do that work, instead of asking FOIL officers or open data coordinators to tabulate the most-requested individual documents by hand.

Public Benefits Beyond Cost Savings

An online Open FOIL system in New York City would have many benefits beyond saving millions of dollars of public funds:

  1. All records released under FOIL are, by definition, public information. OpenFOIL will improve New Yorkers’ access to public information by reducing FOIL response times.
  2. A unified, transparent FOIL regime will make sure each FOIL request is treated equally. Agency staff have told Reinvent Albany that, historically, city commissioners have played favorites with FOIL requests and ordered that requests from interests they disliked be delayed or given non-responsive answers.
  3. Automated systems allow agencies to identify what data is commonly requested and to then publish that data online in in a prominent location where the public can easily find and download it – saving agencies an enormous amount of time. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency reduced its FOIL backlog by 96% by embracing information technology in its FOIL process, and by creating online “reading rooms” where previously requested documents were uploaded to the public.
  4. Potential efficiency gains can’t be identified without statistics about the FOIL process. Automated FOIL systems can create and track dozens of key metrics while still saving money. With automated FOIL systems, data can be easily collected on the volume of requests, the amount of a request backlog, and how long requests take to process or the rate at which requests require legal action. These statistics allow FOIL managers to determine more accurately where resources should be devoted to handling each stage of the FOIL response process.