Monday, October 01, 2007

Make FOIL the Floor, Not the Ceiling

Yesterday's Times featured an editorial railing against the secrecy that has long enveloped the state's capital and arguing that many officials improperly hold up the Freedom of Information Law as a shield:
The law should be used as the last resort for journalists and the public - an appeal for information that is usually invoked after government officials have refused to reveal it. FOIL is the floor on how data should be released, not the ceiling.
We couldn't agree more. One of the fundamental underpinnings of a healthy democracy is an informed citizenry, and when the public and the press don't have ready access to government documents and data, the public interest suffers.

Take for example the Legislature's woefully bad bill information database. Users can only explore bills from this session (at present, only those introduced in 2007), and the information that is available is all but useless to the average citizen. You can find out how individual legislators voted on particular bills, but it is impossible to Unless they pull up each of the thousands of bills individually and manually create a spreadsheet or database, constituents have no way of analyzing their representatives' records.

The bill information site is also bereft of useful information about the bills themselves. Users are limited to legislative history, the bill text, and the anemic bill memoranda (usually less than a full typed page) that accompany each piece of legislation.

Compare this to other states and you'll begin to see just how opaque and arcane New York's government systems truly are. For instance, the Connecticut General Assembly's website allows users to access information on bills dating back to 1991. A simple search reveals the text of the bill and each of its amended versions, the text of proposed amendments, vote tallies for all committees and the full chamber, fiscal notes, and analyses by the committees and the Office of Legislative Research. Not to mention the fact that the longer documents are also available in pdf format for easier printing.

As the Times noted, it is not sufficient for agencies and the Legislature to reply to FOIL requests. New Yorkers should demand that their public officials use the available technology to account for their activities in real time, not at the snail's pace of an official, hard copy request.

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