Watchdog Report Calls on NYS to Treat FOIL as a Core Service

Listening to FOIL 2024: Logs of Six NYS Agencies Find FOIL Treated as Afterthought Rather than Core Responsibility

Reinvent Albany advocates for transparent and accountable New York government. We work to strengthen the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and put government information online. As part of this mission, and in advance of Sunshine Week, our new report, “Listening to FOIL 2024: Lessons from Six NYS Agencies,” looks at the open records requests made per the Freedom of Information Law to six units of NYS government:

  • Metropolitan Transportation Authority
  • Empire State Development
  • New York Power Authority
  • Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government
  • New York State Board of Elections
  • Division of the Budget

Major Findings

  1. The Governor should issue an Executive Order requiring agencies to treat FOIL as a core service, and implement a truly Open FOIL platform where “release to one, release to all” is used to publish public records.  
  2. GovQA software is underachieving because core features are not being used properly, and it is ironically creating barriers to public access that must be fixed. 
  3. The State should pass legislation requiring basic information about FOIL be collected and published.

FOIL Caseloads
Our report shows that performance and caseloads among agencies vary greatly. Some agencies receive a huge volume of complex FOIL requests, like the MTA, which has a backlog of requests that are over a year old. Other agencies receive far fewer requests, like the Division of the Budget. On average, most agencies take more than the 20 days required by the Freedom of Information Law to provide the requested records. However, one entity, the State Board of Elections, had a surprisingly fast turnaround time of only four days, on average.

Below is a summary of the number of FOIL requests received and how long it took to close the request for the six agencies covered in this report. (Please see the report for the full methodology and explanation of the data.)  

Other Report Findings and Analysis
In addition to looking at overall caseloads of agencies, our report examines who requests records, what information is sought, and the efforts agencies are making to improve their FOIL process or publish more records. The report also looks at what types of records the public is requesting. FOILs for contracts and public spending are common – building the case for proactive disclosure of contracts and economic development deals. 

In a special section of the report, we highlight FOIL requests to the State Board of Elections from national groups engaged in denying election results and seeking to discredit the voting process in New York. Many of these groups have been linked with efforts to discredit the validity of election results around the country.

Reinvent Albany urges government agencies in New York to consider responding to records requests as a core service, rather than an afterthought or arbitrary burden. New York State agencies have had more than 50 years to perfect their process for responding to FOIL requests, but many do not work to improve FOIL customer service and efficiency. We think agencies should finally get serious about meeting the basic expectations of the Freedom of Information Law by collecting and publishing data about requests, and using it to better manage their efforts. 

Report Recommendations

New York State Open FOIL
Via Executive Order, the Governor should require state agencies to use a web-based “Open FOIL” platform and follow a policy of “release to one, publish for all” in which public records provided in response to a FOIL request are published for all to see. This is already done by jurisdictions across the country, and more locally, the Port Authority of NY/NJ. 

The State’s current Open FOIL NY portal allows users to request records online, including for multiple agencies at a time. Despite its name, New York is not truly using an “Open FOIL” platform because it does not publish FOIL request data or publish records from fulfilled requests, like the Port Authority does for its fulfilled requests

A number of agencies have switched to GovQA, a third-party FOIL processing application. Given that the GovQA platform has the capability to publish records from fulfilled requests, as seen in Washington State’s King and Spokane counties, the State merely needs to activate this feature, thus functionally creating an Open FOIL platform for participating agencies.

FOIL Reporting
The Governor’s office should evaluate the State’s FOIL requests and responses, treating FOIL as a core public service that is well-managed, data-driven, and continuously improved.

Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal recently introduced a bill, S8671, that would require state and local bodies subject to FOIL to report how quickly and completely they are providing requested records by submitting their FOIL logs to the Committee on Open Government.

GovQA Improvements
While efforts are made to implement OpenFOIL and FOIL reporting, the GovQA platform should be improved to:

  • No longer require creating an account to submit a request, but rather use CAPTCHA to verify that the request is coming from an individual, not a bot, and instead identify requests by name or email. 
  • Make it optional to create an account so users may log in to see the status of requests registered to their email address.
  • Establish a single log-in credential for all requests to NYS agencies and authorities, for those who want to create an account.
  • Allow attachments to be added to requests submitted via the portal.
  • Increase the character limit for requests to allow more descriptive requests. 
  • Allow appeals to be made through the portal, not just via a snail mail address.
  • Allow replies to response emails generated from the GovQA portal. 
  • Provide a FOIL contact person for each agency, with an email and phone number, so FOILers know how to contact a human when necessary.
  • Publish all fulfilled public records requests, implementing a true Open FOIL system.

The full report also has recommendations for each of the six agencies covered in our analysis.

See below for the full report, or click here to view the report as a PDF.