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Putting City Documents Online

by Laura Forlano, Jan 16, 2003

The Giuliani administration was criticized for its poor relations with the media -- until September 11 -- and for failing to make key government documents public. In particular, last February, the former mayor was embroiled in a conflict over whether his records would be considered public or private.

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The current administration could not be more opposite in its approach towards public information. In fact, this February Mayor Bloomberg is expected to sign legislation that requires all city agencies to post their official reports and publications on the Internet within 10 business days with help from the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS).

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Along these same lines, last month the mayor announced that all mayoral Blue Room events and City Council stated meetings will be webcast over the Internet with the help of Crosswalks NYC, the city's cable television station, and NYC.gov. In addition, the webcast is taking advantage of new technology to make NYC government more accessible without additional costs to taxpayers.

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The proposed law, number 119-A, is expected to be approved later this month by the City Council. It was introduced by City Councilmember Gale Brewer, chair of the Select Committee on Technology in Government among other sponsors.

The legislation is significant in that it is the first time a large state or municipality is requiring that its agencies post official reports online. According to a City Council briefing paper, "the implication of the bill on access to public information is clear: rather than waiting weeks or months to receive a report, citizens can now access reports in a relatively time-efficient and cost-free manner." This also means that the public can be more effective in its role to keep up with and comment on government initiatives.

In order to limit the resources required by city agencies to comply with the new law during the tight budget crunch, the records department will function as the management hub for the posting and dissemination of all reports and publications. Thus, DORIS will become the city's electronic gatekeeper in addition to its current role as the gatekeeper of hard copies of public documents. Once the agency receives the reports and publications, it must make them available online almost immediately.

The initiative will also require the cooperation of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) which will take advantage of increased processing power, memory and online disk storage to accomplish the project. In addition, in the future, key personnel at city agencies will be able to use a Web management software to upload documents directly to the city's Web site.

Clearly, this legislation depends on the resources and cooperation of DoITT to succeed. However, one wonders why the agency's own Web site is not more user-friendly, regularly-updated and chock full of useful reports. Maybe this new law will lend a hand at making the tech agency's reports available too?

In the past, journalists seeking access to public information often complained about the lengthy process necessary to obtain it. The lack of government staff available to track down the require documents as well as an environment that was not conducive to transparency and openness were mainly to blame.

Thus, journalists, citizens and government staff were often denied access to information that was legally public according to the 1974 Freedom of Information Act at the federal level and its state counterpart the Freedom of Information law (FOIL)

The Freedom of Information law is enforced by the NYS Committee on Open Government. Over the past year, the committee has responded to 7,000 inquiries and written 800 legal opinions regarding freedom of information, open meetings and privacy. Their 2002 report "Safety, Security and Accountability: Striking the Right Balance" provides a good overview of the issues involved.

On the flip side of freedom of information, concerns over personal privacy may increasingly limit the availability of information. According to a City Council report, "as the Internet expands, and as the city's own Intranet grows, the possibility of disseminating a wealth of cross-referenced data for public use and manipulation also increases."

For example, a New York State Supreme Court decision in NYPIRG v. New York City Department of Health, raised issues about the New York Public Interest Research Group's (NYPIRG) right to obtain electronic health department records that included confidential information about children. In the end, the judge ruled in favor of open government but required the health department to electronically remove the sensitive information because it would be more efficient to use software rather than remove the information manually. The case illustrates the potential conflict between privacy interests and freedom of information as a result of new technology.

In a break with the previous administration's attitude towards freedom of information, Mayor Bloomberg has remained committed to transparency and openness in government while using technology to improve access, and for that, he should be commended. Let's hope he does the same with his mayoral records when the time comes.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.


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