New York Government Needs a Really Big Dose of Sunshine
“Government functions best when it operates in the open.”
Government transparency is front page news in New York. Public trust in state government is plummeting after press accounts and a report from the Attorney General showed the Governor’s office deliberately failed to disclose the true number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 from the public. Now is a critical time for the state to restore public trust as New York continues to respond to COVID-19, and the current leadership crisis.
Sunshine Week was founded in 2005 by newspaper journalists seeking to strengthen state and federal Freedom of Information laws (FOI). Since then, smartphones have become the main way New Yorkers access information and concepts like “open data” have been mandated under law and executive order in New York City and New York State.
To be sure, New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) remains vitally important. The recent legislation and court decisions requiring the disclosure of police disciplinary records (“50-a”) is a huge win for public transparency. However, the FOIL process itself is mired in delays and there is a lack of compliance with open data requirements among many government agencies. Most fundamentally, New York State and local government need to “push” much more information online, in a smartphone-friendly way, and modernize and digitize FOIL, so it is easier for the public to “pull” information into the sunlight.
Below are some of the things New York State and local governments can do to restore public trust through increased transparency:
Immediate action by the Executive
- Release 121 COVID datasets as open data
- Release fully transparent budget details, including funds withheld and cut from individual agencies and programs
- Launch Empire State Development’s Database of Deals
- Upgrade Open FOIL portal
Immediate action by the Legislature
- Hold COVID-19 oversight hearings
- Codify Database of Deals, S2815 (Comrie)/A2334 (Schimminger) of 2020
- Pass MTA open data legislation, S4625 (Comrie)/A1442-A (Carroll) of 2021
- Amend Senate Rules to increase access to records under FOIL
- Amend and pass bill subjecting government entities to FOIL (S1625/A924, Skoufis/Paulin)
Immediate action by other branches of state government
- Fix broken Board of Elections campaign finance database
- Fully fund Authorities Budget Office to allow staff to modernize Public Authorities Reporting Information System (PARIS)
- Audit FOIL Compliance at the Department of Health (State Comptroller)
- Open the MTA with an Open FOIL portal, open budget data, contracts database, and improved capital program dashboard
- Review and gather basic FOIL data so the Committee on Open Government can better assess compliance and address public dissatisfaction with FOIL
- Continue to upgrade functionality and usability of Comptroller’s Open Book spending, procurement and contract portal including making data available via API to Attorney General’s NY Open Government website.
- Regularly upgrade and improve Attorney General’s NY Open Government website including by integrating machine-readable charitable data.
- Create a Committee on Open Government which is independent of the executive branch, and includes representatives from the Attorney General and Comptroller’s Office.
- Independent ethics enforcement body which can ensure better compliance with public officers law, including transparency and conflict of interest.
- The executive should assess a new architecture for state data sharing and use that incorporates open data, rather than treating it as an add-on to regular agency activities. For instance, agency staff should use the same datasets that are disclosed to the public in the Open NY portal or on agency sites, rather than have multiple versions of the same dataset. Many datasets do not include personal information or other data excluded from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Law.
- The Legislature should study best practices for open data laws incorporating lessons learned in NYS, NYC and elsewhere, holding a hearing and inviting experts and stakeholders.