How New York City is beating the feds to 21st century transparency

Illustration of the race between the tortoise and the hare.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How are New York City Council and an annual conference dedicated to the democracy-saving power of the Internet poised to beat the federal government into the 21st century?

Back in 2010, the Sunlight Foundation worked with Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., to develop the federal Public Online Information Act (POIA), in an effort that was supported by dozens of public interest organizations.

Unfortunately, as recent analyses demonstrate, the current pace of U.S. congressional lawmaking can be most accurately described as “slower than molasses in January.” In 2013, only 1% of the number of bills that were introduced became law. With these kinds of odds, it’s not altogether surprising that POIA, now introduced in two consecutive sessions of Congress, continues to languish.

New Yorkers, meanwhile, can enjoy the fact that the newly proposed NYC POIA will give them a chance to show the feds how it’s done. Democratic Councilmember Ben Kallos introduced New York City’s version in order to achieve the same unimpeachable aim as the federal POIA: bringing government into the 21st century by putting all public government information online.

In several ways, the NYC proposal is stronger and goes beyond its namesake bill. Rather than simply expressing the sense of the legislative body that public information should be available online, NYC’s POIA mandates that:

Whenever the terms “public information,” “public inspection” or “inspection by the public” are used in the charter or administrative code…the information provided by a city agency pursuant to any such requirement shall include…publication of all such information on the agency’s website, in an open format, and publication to the open data portal…no later than such time as such information is provided by any other means.

While the federal POIA foresaw putting the decision about what to put online in the hands of an advisory council, the NYC POIA proposes to let existing restrictions on public information provide the guidelines for online access. In other words, in terms of making the meaning of “public” truly equivalent to “online,” New York’s proposal accomplishes this quite neatly.

New York’s proposal demonstrates an extremely ambitious timeline relative to that envisioned in the federal POIA. With a requirement that city agencies abide by its provisions within 120 days of passage, NYC’s POIA anticipates city agency compliance more than two-and-a-half years more quickly than was anticipated for federal executive agencies. While the relative size of the agencies is undoubtedly a factor in this difference (and the timeline itself may yet be extended), the proposal’s commonsense expectation — that government work which, these days, is now completed online should also be available online — lays bare the tragic failure of the federal government to achieve such basic efficiencies of communication.

New York’s POIA proposal also surpasses the federal version in its understanding of the significance of open formats and modes of transmission. While the federal POIA authorizes the advisory council and other administrators to determine what would constitute an appropriate machine-processable format and does not specify required modes of information transmission beyond online posting, the New York draft clearly defines appropriate formats as being:

[B]oth human and machine-readable, and with an open application programming interface that provides the general public with bulk downloads as well as specifications for routines, data structures object classes, variables remote calls and such other information as would he necessary to access information externally through an open standard that is available to  the public without any registration requirement, license requirement royalty fee or any other restrictions on their use.

Finally, we should note that it is fitting that New York City is the local government making these important strides on the fundamental idea that 21st century life demands a 21st century government. The idea for POIA was itself born five years ago in New York City at the annual stateside meeting of the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), when PDF founder Andrew Rasiej conceived of redefining “public” to mean “online and searchable.” (Full disclosure: Rasiej serves as a senior technology advisor for Sunlight.)

In fitting synchronicity, PDF happens to be convening in New York City again next week, once more hoping to conceive ideas for using the power of the internet to reinvigorate democracy.

As attendees come together, we hope to be able to celebrate the fruition of an idea whose time has finally come, in a city that’s future-ready.

And just maybe come up with the next great idea.