Open FOIL would create a centralized, searchable database of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests sent to City agencies. The online database would allow members of the public to both file FOIL requests and search previous ones. Information would include the date each request was filed and documentation of its progress. The site would be developed by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Office of Operations.
The FOIL law should NOT reveal the identifty of regular people asking for documents. It can and should be what was requested and the agency response/s, but provacy is important for people to do research without fear of retribution.
My name is Adam Wisnieski and I am a freelance journalist from the Bronx. The following testimony is on behalf of myself as a citizen of New York City and not as a representative of any news organization I work for.
I have a great deal of experience submitting Freedom of Information requests to city, state and federal agencies. The City of New York's FOIL system is broken. Some agencies respond quickly to complicated requests while others never respond to simple ones. Some insist on printing lengthy documents and there are a few that even require the requester travel downtown to pick up documents when e-mailing the documents would be much easier and cost taxpayers less money. I have had agencies shoot down my FOIL requests by saying there are "no responsive documents," despite my knowledge that those documents exist and only after an appeal were they given to me. I have waited months and months for requests and currently have more than a dozen outstanding requests at various city agencies. There is no uniformity in the system and I think this legislation will help fix that.
Government needs to be held accountable for not following the state's Freedom of Information Law. This legislation would result in the public having statistics on how well agencies respond to requests, which is a good first step. But there needs to be some sort of an accountability measure that will change how agencies view FOIL requests. I believe at certain city agencies, the default is to withhold information rather than release it to a journalist or a member of the public. I think exposure will help, but sometimes government agencies need more of an incentive. I am not sure what can be done to accomplish this, but some sort of penalty (or even a system of positive incentives) need to be part of the legislation.
It is often said that government agencies discriminate based on who is making a request. I do not have evidence of this, but I will share an experience I have had. As an independent freelance writer, I often file requests under my own name, without the tagline of any news outlet and without any mention that I am a journalist. I do this because when I file the request, I have no idea what news outlet I will end up writing the story for if there is a story to report. Despite filing under my name without an affiliated news outlet, I have had instances where government agencies have responded to my requests with a name of a news organization I previously worked for. This does not prove discrimination, but it does prove the government agency was interested in the fact that I was a journalist and not simply a member of the public. Governments should treat every requester the same. I think an online tracker will help prevent this.
That being said, there have been concerns raised by members of the press that there should be a system in place where documents are delayed to give a reporter time to report on it. While I understand that exclusivity is part of this business, the focus should be on fixing the system first. Having requests completed faster (and in machine-readable format!) is most important. If that is accomplished, whether requesters should have access to those documents for a period of time before they are posted online is a good problem for journalists to have. Given the option of 1. waiting years for the NYPD to finally fork over detailed machine readable data on every arrest/summons for marijuana in a given year just so I could have exclusive access to that data and release it myself ahead of the FOIL portal or 2. being notified by the NYPD after a few weeks that this data has been published on an online portal for all to see, I will always choose the latter.
And my Twitter handle is @adamthewiz.
—Adam Wisnieski, Bronx, N.Y.