Over the past eight years, Bloomberg's City Hall has put an unprecedented amount of public information online. Most agencies have become more accessible to the press, even if getting city officials on the phone can be difficult.
But some parts of the Bloomberg administration—some of the rooms in the house—are as or more impenetrable as they were under Giuliani. And according to watchdogs, researchers and reporters, gaining access to some agencies' documents through the Freedom of Information Law has been unjustifiably difficult.
What has linked both the transparency and the barriers under Bloomberg is an intense attention by his staff to delivering a coordinated message about the mayor—a message that, over the past year, has been amplified by the mayor's wealth.
"I’m a big believer in the idea that transparency in government makes for good government," Bloomberg said in a weekly radio addresses in April. "Transparency allows the public to see exactly how their elected leaders are performing, and to hold them accountable for results."
Indeed, free access to information about government—not just data but answers about what the city is doing and why—is critical to the role of both citizens and journalists as watchdogs of government. It's important, as Bloomberg himself suggested in his 1997 autobiography, that reporters "don’t have to be afraid of calling it as they see it."
Whether publicized or hidden, information about city government belongs to the people. After all, they own the house.
Whether it's the Human Resources Administration (HRA) offering report cards on how welfare offices are performing, the NYPD posting crime statistics for each precinct, or the Department of Education's provision of test scores broken down by borough, school, grade and race, much of the Bloomberg record is there for the web-savvy to find. There are Citywide Performance Reports that offer a color-coded look at how each agency is doing on a range of measures. There's the My Neighborhood Statistics page that allows residents to learn about health, infrastructure and other indicators for their part of the city, and NYC GIS which offers searchable maps displaying city facilities and projects. Every city vendor is listed in one database, and every lobbyist in another. Detailed information about each property in the city is in the Department of Buildings' Building Information System. The 311 Online website has a wide array of information about city services (although ultimately, online users are often instructed to call 311). A new stimulus tracker offers information on where federal funding is going.
DoITT, or the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees the city's websites and the 311 system, says the city's sites get about 1.8 million unique viewers each month.
"Bloomberg's a data guy," says one former Bloomberg administration press officer. "He wants more information about things online. They kept pushing us to put more information out there"—so much that the press officer sometimes worried that reporters would print jargon-laced information obtained from the web without understanding what it meant.
Bloomberg recently unveiled a "Big Apps" competition that will award a top prize of $5,000 to the developer who submits "the most useful, inventive, appealing, effective, and commercially viable applications for delivering information from the City of New York's NYC.gov Data Mine to interested users."
Veterans of the Giuliani years see no comparison between the mayor and his predecessor. "The difference between the two administrations? They're different worlds," says one former city press officer who worked under both mayors. (Like the other former press officers interviewed for this piece, he is still working as a government spokesman and didn't want to jeopardize his job by citing his name.)
Wayne Barrett, the longtime investigative reporter at the Village Voice, recalls a Giuliani press secretary, Sunny Mindel, refusing even to give him a press release. "Absolutely everything could be beyond public accountability. They'd deny you the most basic information and then defy you to sue," he says of the past mayor. "You weren't getting any answers. Now, at least you're getting answers."
City Hall spokesman Jason Post says, "The mayor believes in data availability and being judged by it—having the people and the press keep us accountable." Post points to the regular status reports on the mayor's PlaNYC and anti-poverty initiatives as examples of Bloomberg's openness to evaluation.
During Bloomberg's mayoralty, the City Hall press staff has grown slightly in number—adding three positions since 2002 to a total of 20—and doubled in budget, to $1.7 million. During Mayor Ed Koch's time, the staff was around 10, but that was a different era—before the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet.
Look who's talking
While much data is online and press officers can be quick to answer questions, it is difficult even for reporters at major newspapers to get agency officials on the phone. "I rarely get policy makers, almost always flacks," says New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, using the slang for "spokespersons."