Illumination: How GovPilot Upholds United States Freedom of Information Laws

Posted by Alannah Dragonetti on December 16, 2016
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In Colorado, it is the CORA (Colorado Open Records Act). In GovPilot’s home state of New Jersey, it’s called the OPRA (Open Public Records  Act). Whatever lawmakers choose to call it, each U.S. state has its own form of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) legislation that protects the American public’s right to access government records.


Open data is not a formality or public relations move, but a practice that offers just as much to government as it does the governed. This week’s blog post explores FOIA legislation’s surprisingly short history and GovPilot’s efforts to ensure its future.


New Information


Though it aligns with the democratic values the United States of America was founded on in 1776, the concept of Freedom of Information is a relatively new one. In fact, it was not signed into law until the nation was on the cusp of its bicentennial.


The first, faint cries for open information could be heard in the early 1950’s. Cold War paranoia was at fever pitch and classifying government data was the prevailing protocol. This practice did not sit well with many journalists, citizens and some government officials, most notably, Democratic California Senator, John E. Moss. Senator Moss believed that the public could not truly participate in democracy without having knowledge of government leaders’ actions and decision-making process.


GovPilot government sofwtare Senator John E. Moss (Dem.), the grandfather of Freedom of Information legislation.


Shortly after arriving in Washington D.C., Senator Moss earned a reputation as an outspoken advocate of government transparency. In 1955, the Democrats regained control of Congress and established a Committee on Government Operations subcommittee to investigate several high profile cases of federal agencies withholding information. Senator Moss was appointed chairman, solidifying his role as leader of the open information movement.

For over a decade, Senator Moss and his supporters conducted investigations, held hearings and otherwise fought for the passage of a federal open data law. On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally and reluctantly signed the FOIA.


Everybody Gets an OPRA Process!


Senator Moss’ legacy lives on.Today, all fifty states  and the District of Columbia have FOI  laws granting public access to government records.Though most are based at least in part on the federal FOIA, the particulars—who can issue requests, which department is required to provide access to its records, the formalities a request must meet—vary.


Fortunately, GovPilot offers over 100 customizable digital templates of everyday government processes. Built with the input of subject matter experts, GovPilot processes simplify and centralize data collection, streamline communication and automate routine tasks.Many New Jersey clients have leveraged the GovPilot platform to upgrade their state-mandated Open Public Records Act (OPRA) compliance process.


Digital forms are a main component of the GovPilot OPRA process. Instead of requiring constituents to write and send a formal letter, GovPilot clients share a digital OPRA request form on their official website. The form can be completed via desktop, laptop or mobile device for optimal convenience.

Upon submission, the requestor and designated municipal employee both receive a notification. This is the first of many transparent steps in the OPRA process, as managed by GovPilot’s automated workflow. Automation eliminates miscommunication, information barriers and other common impediments to progress. Turnaround time is minimal and transparent operations eliminate mystery to cut the frequency of constituents’ phone calls and unannounced visits to city hall.


Union Township, NJ knows the benefits of GovPilot’s OPRA process firsthand. Since upgrading operations a few months ago, the clerk’s office has saved significant time and resources responding to OPRA requests, even as the convenience of digital forms causes the volume of requests to skyrocket.RMC/CMC/Municipal Clerk, Eileen Birch,says that GovPilot has, “streamlined the entire process and it is easier to keep track of the requests. The best part is no paper!”


The enhanced tracking capabilities Birch speaks of help government gauge which data is in high demand. Administrations looking to further convenience employees and constituents can opt to publish the most sought-after data sets on a GovPilot map. In its most basic form, GovPilot’s  geographic information system (GIS) parcel map illustrates layers of weather and traffic information aggregated from public domains such as FEMA and Google. Clients often add custom layers that harness commonly sought information from internal databases. Displayed on the municipal website, the public-facing map becomes a reliable and easily digestible source of information for citizens.


The GovPilot platform helps government manage and track requests, analyze trends and adjust operations to ensure that requests for information are met in a way that conveniences and satisfies both government and constituent.