Headquarters for New York City’s health and police departments are separated by the East River, but they might as well be worlds apart when it comes to transparency.
In December, identical public record requests for a list of employees were sent to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the New York City Police Department.
Within a month, the health department emailed an electronic list containing full names of its more than 5,200 employees, along with their titles, offices and salaries.
But it took three months for the NYPD to send its reply through the regular mail: a signed letter denying the request because an employee listing was not in the agency’s “possession, custody, or control.”
The requests were among 344 that The New York World filed in partnership with MuckRock to 86 local and state agencies subject to New York state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) as part of an effort to assess how effectively different agencies deal with such requests. The results were decidedly mixed, as some agencies quickly provided the requested documents in an easy-to-use format and at no cost, while other requests remain outstanding to this day, eight months after they were filed.
“The public’s experience with FOIL is pretty damn bad,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a nonprofit focused on FOIL reform and government transparency. “There’s a huge variation between the leaders and laggards.”
The New York World/MuckRock partnership requested copies of each agency’s subject matter list that details the records the agency maintains, FOIL-specific regulations and policies, a list of employees, and a log of all FOILs received.
The partnership then assessed each agency’s response on a series of measures and assigned a letter grade to each. See here for a more detailed explanation of the methodology.
The city health department was among three city agencies to receive an ‘A,’ while the NYPD fell to the bottom of the pack with an ‘F.’ Calls and emails to both the NYPD and the health department for comment went unreturned.
In fact, only two of the nearly 20 agencies contacted for comment on their FOIL process agreed to speak on the record. The offices of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio were among those that failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
Under FOIL, any organization or individual can request access to government records, including businesses, advocacy groups, media, and concerned citizens. New York was among the first to enact state legislation modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which was retooled in the 1970s amid growing public distrust in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
“As government has grown and become more sophisticated and complex, so too has it become more remote from the people and more difficult to comprehend in all of its workings,” then-Gov. Malcolm Wilson said in 1974. “These bills will provide, for the first time in New York state, a structure through which citizens may gain access to the records of government and thereby gain insight into its workings.”