Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
Committee on Open Government
Department of State
Can We Have Too Much Sunshine?
It’s Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the public’s right to know about its government. We are fortunate in New York to have an expansive Freedom of Information Law (also known as “FOIL”), but increasingly, we’re learning that it may not be easy to navigate through the mountain of information that’s available in an effort to find what you want.
Since 1978, FOIL has applied to all records of state and local government agencies and defines the term “record” to include any information “in any physical form whatsoever” that is maintained by or for an agency. Based on that provision, it is clear that paper documents, as well as the content of a database, are “records” that fall within the coverage of FOIL.
In brief, FOIL states that all records are available, except those records or portions of records that may be withheld pursuant to a series of grounds for denying access. The issue most often involves what would happen if the government had to disclose. Would disclosure result in an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy, damage the government’s ability to do its job well on behalf of the public, or perhaps cause injury to the competitive position of a commercial enterprise? Unless the answer is “ouch, disclosure would hurt”, usually disclosure should be the outcome.
Statistical and factual data is usually available, and when that is so, it can be sought via a request made to the records access officer at the agency that maintains the data. FOIL requires that a request must “reasonably describe” the records or data sought. That means that you don’t have to know the names of the records that you want, but rather that a request should include sufficient detail to enable staff to locate and identify them. It can be important to learn how records/data are kept or filed. Some may be kept chronologically, but others by last name or location. If staff can locate and identify the records of interest, the request is proper.
What if you have a good idea of what you want, but the information is contained within database that includes information that you don’t want? First, an agency is not required to search through the haystack to find the needle, if it is known that the needle is there, somewhere. Second, assuming that the information can be located, FOIL states that “When an agency has the ability to retrieve or extract a record or data with reasonable effort, it shall be required to do so.”
So far so good. But what if there’s a mountain of data, and going through it to find what you want would be difficult or time consuming? The need today involves a search engine or similar mechanism that lets the public focus on specific data that can be located. Sometimes we have to use more than a word to find what we want. For example, this office has prepared 25,000 advisory opinions over the years, and they are indexed by “key phrase” alphabetically. By reviewing the index, you might find exactly what you want. If you can’t, we have a search box where you can type in the word or phrase that would describe the records of interest. If you enter “licenses”, you’ll be connected with dozens of opinions. But if you enter “dog licenses”, you’ll find the three opinions focusing on that topic.
It’s great for the government to provide access to immense amounts of data, but it’s important to make it available in ways that enable the public to find and use it easily and without frustration.
By the way, you can find the Committee on Open Government website by googling “coog.”