Mayor de Blasio Should Release DataBridge: Other Half of 311 Data

At the November 18th hearing of the NYC Council’s Committee on Technology, Reinvent Albany called for the publication of “end to end” 311 data via the opening of the city’s Databridge system. Databridge tracks agency responses to 311 service requests, and is essentially the other half of 311 data. Currently, the public can only see what the public requests, not how the city responds.  The steps agencies take in response to 311 requests are available only to the Mayor’s Office of Operations and Office of Data Analytics.

In our testimony, we call for the publication of Databridge data, and an end to the current two-tier data system in which the public can only see the first half of the 311 processs.

Albany Law Event Highlights FOIL Opportunities

Albany Law School recently hosted FOIL at 40: Looking Back, Looking Forward, a discussion about the New York State Freedom of Information Law and its origin, implementation, and future. The five-member panel was moderated by The Capitol Pressroom’s Susan Arbetter, and included:

  • Tim Hoefer, Empire Center
  • Peter Henner, Committee Member, NYCLU
  • Camille Jobin-Davis, NYS Committee on Open Government, Department of State
  • Brendan Lyons, Albany Times Union
  • Jeffrey Pearlman, Chief of Staff, Senate Democratic Conference, NY State Senate

The panelists discussed FOIL and related issues, such as open data and records retention policies. Both Brendan Lyons and Tim Hoefer had plenty of war stories about FOIL requests turning into years-long lawsuits, or the maddening inconsistencies between agencies. For example, one of the Albany Times-Union’s FOIL requests to the Department of Health for a contract took over a year, and whole pages of the released contract were redacted. A subsequent FOIL to the State Comptroller for the same contract took mere weeks and was hardly redacted.

After listening to other panelists mention costly FOIL litigation, for which FOILers pay tens of thousands of dollars, Empire Center’s Tim Hoefer put it bluntly: “if you have to bring a lawsuit for a FOIL request, that’s a failure.”

The discussion briefly touched on the Cuomo administration’s practice of requiring agencies to refer all but the most routine FOIL requests to the executive chamber. Lyons called the practice “extraordinary,” and described FOIL requests which could be fulfilled in a day taking months or even a year because of this referral process.

The practice of agencies providing unlimited extensions of the deadline for responding to FOIL requests also came up. Camille Jobin-Davis noted that while agencies can provide their own “reasonable” deadline based on the complexity of the FOIL request and the total volume of all requests at that agency, agencies cannot give themselves endless extensions.

The other panelists noted that many agencies still give themselves endless extensions, and Lyons noted that the Albany Times-Union doesn’t sue on unnecessary delay because “you usually don’t get your money back.” Panelist Peter Henner said that compliance with deadlines (and appeals) is on the honor system, and Article 78 lawsuits take even longer. By way of an example, the Empire Center spent four years litigating the release of state pension records, and was awarded just $500 in court costs.

We hope to see more oversight and accountability brought to the FOIL process, so agencies aren’t put on the honor system. The endless extensions of self-imposed deadline, the wildly disparate application of FOIL exemptions, and the slow pace of responses undermines public confidence in the FOIL process.

Joint Statement on Today’s Passage of Port Authority Reform Bills

Today, we applaud the New Jersey Assembly for voting in favor of two reform bills that would significantly improve public disclosure and accountability at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey: S2181/A3417 and S2183/A3350. Both bills have now cleared the New Jersey Legislature, as well as both houses of the New York State Legislature. There is just one last act to occur: Governor Cuomo and Governor Christie need to act quickly to sign these important bills into law.

The Port Authority owns and manages some of the most significant infrastructure assets in our region—bridges, bus facilities, tunnels, the PATH, ports, airports, and the World Trade Center site. With billions of dollars at stake, the Port Authority impacts the daily commutes and pocketbooks of millions of New York and New Jersey residents and businesses.

After months of controversy, the public deserves a more open and accountable entity that will reform the way it does business. The Port Authority was created in the spirit of bi-state cooperation, and the voters of New Jersey and New York deserve the final approval of these important pieces of legislation. It is only through increased transparency, sound governance, and professional management that public confidence and trust can be restored.

We thank Assemblymembers Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Amy Handlin and Senators Loretta Weinberg, Robert Gordon and Joe Pennacchio for their leadership in New Jersey, as well as Assemblymembers James Brennan and Amy Paulin and Senators Andrew Lanza and Michael Ranzenhofer for their stewardship of the legislation in New York.

Top Obstacles to State Open Data Initiatives

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From the 2014 survey of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

85% of NY Local Govt Websites Get “F”

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 12.09.47 PMA stunning 85% of the 500 New York State local government websites rated by the Empire Center got an “F” for failing to provide basic information and being hard to use. The poor grades look especially grim when you consider that Empire Center looked only at websites belonging to the largest and most well funded local governments. (NYS has 3,453 units of local government according to the Census.)

Empire’s review – by far the largest of its kind ever done in NY – graded cities, counties, towns, villages, and school districts on the information they provided in ten areas:

  1. Contact information
  2. Public Meetings
  3. Public Information
  4. Budgets
  5. Financial Reports
  6. Contracts
  7. Taxes and Fees
  8. Facilities and Services
  9. Expenditures
  10. Ease of Navigation

The website review is particularly effective because the categories of information Empire created are clear, logical, and fair. While the overall picture the report paints is dismal, some localities did well. The best-performing sites belonged to Southern Tier’s Schuyler County, New York City, the Town of Wilton in the Capital Region, the Town of Penfield in the Finger Lakes and the Clarkstown Central School District in the Mid-Hudson valley.

The best-performing categories were Public Meetings with a 79% passage rate, Taxes with 64%, and Budgets with a 63% pass rate. Disappointingly, 99% of sites failed to publish adequate information about contracts and 81% failed to provide basic information about making Freedom of Information Law requests; and 72% failed in the softball Ease of Navigation category.

As explained in the report:

Except for a small—but notable—group of outliers, local governments and school districts are not providing clear or comprehensive or even the most basic information on their websites. What could and should be useful, powerful tools for taxpayers are very much underutilized. Earning a passing score on the 10-point transparency checklist is not an unreachable goal, even for those entities that failed on the first go round. A website would earn a nearly passing 62 percent by simply posting the documents as outlined in the checklist.

The Empire Center undertook this project not to place blame on any individual local government, rather to highlight the need for advancement in how and when data and information is presented on websites. With no real guidance for what makes a good website, the SeeThrough Government Rankings should provide a basis and a benchmark by which local governments can see how websites stack up from one municipality to the next.