Introducing OPRAmachine: tackling political corruption in New Jersey

The latest installation of our Alaveteli software, OPRAmachine, is an interesting new use of the platform. Rather than covering a whole country, as most of the other Alaveteli installations around the world do, it services just a single US state.

OPRAmachine, which launched in October, allows citizens to request information from state and local governmental agencies in New Jersey, under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

We asked Gavin Rozzi, the local journalist who has built and runs OPRAmachine, about the site and its impacts so far:

Why did you decide to set up OPRAmachine?

I developed an interest in New Jersey’s Freedom of Information law in the course of my work as an independent journalist. I created OPRAmachine because there is a void in our state for a statewide Freedom of Information portal.

Historically, New Jersey has gained a reputation as a state with excessive spending on state and local government, along with an enduring “culture” of political corruption, as defined by The New York Times.

I have found that in all too many cases, a lack of transparency and compliance with OPRA disclosure requirements has gone hand in hand with instances of government mismanagement and corruption at the state and local level, some of which have been publicised over the years.

While working in my capacity as an independent journalist, I began making extensive use of the OPRA law in order to study the activities of local governments in New Jersey. I became very familiar with the process and the how the law is effective at bringing about vitally needed transparency through the right it gives citizens to obtain public records.

Why is the site a state-wide implementation rather than a country-wide one?

In New Jersey, we have a separate state Freedom of Information law that applies to state and local governmental agencies, the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The law broadly defines a ‘government record’ and allows citizens to request quite a bit from public bodies.

On a federal level, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) only applies to federal agencies, so it isn’t the law we’re looking to use.

We chose to only focus on New Jersey and not the rest of the United States because I felt that a state level website would have the largest chance to make a positive impact, especially in a state like New Jersey that has over 565 municipalities and a very large state government.

Additionally, because of how fragmented New Jersey’s local governments are, before OPRAmachine there was no single statewide web application that allowed citizens to make requests to every single municipality in the state. Like the site’s users, I live, work and attend university in New Jersey, so that’s why I chose to focus on the state rather than going nationwide, as this is where I felt that I could have the biggest impact given my resources.

I already operate an independent news website that focuses on Ocean County, New Jersey where I currently reside, so for me launching an Alaveteli site was a natural progression. We are planning a follow-up site for federal FOIA requests at FOIA.me; development on that effort remains ongoing.

What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?

I chose Alaveteli to power OPRAmachine because it offered the most robust set of tools that we needed to power our platform. I have found it to be an excellent platform and it fits all of the needs for our project. The moderation system allows us to get an idea of how the site is progressing, as well as identify potential issues that require our attention. We have found the support of the developers and Alaveteli community to be an excellent resource in navigating some of the challenges associated with deploying the code base to its current production environment.

How well known is the right to information in New Jersey?

New Jersey’s current freedom of information law, the Open Public Records Act, was adopted in 2002. OPRA replaced our state’s previous Right to Know law that was found to be fairly ineffective. There is definitely a small but active community of individuals who utilise the law to gather information on the operations of local government in New Jersey. Occasionally, cases become well-known, such as where an individual is seeking police dashcam videos or controversial documents. But outside of journalists, public officials, and those engaged with public affairs, many citizens of the state are unaware how extensive their rights are under the OPRA law, and I am hopeful that OPRAmachine will help people learn more.

How do you plan to promote OPRAmachine and get more people using it?

We will largely be relying on online content and word of mouth to promote the site. Since its launch in October, we have steadily increased our user base each week. We are also in talks with some of our supporters about possibly having an in-person event in the future to promote the site, as well as to educate citizens about their right to make requests under the OPRA law.

What lasting impact do you hope the site will achieve?

I hope that the site helps to make state and local government more transparent, in addition to educating both citizens and public officials about how the Open Public Records Act works. I also hope that the site will contribute to democracy by allowing anybody interested in the activities of the New Jersey government to browse and request public records that otherwise might not have been available online.

Secondly, I hope that the site changes the culture of government in New Jersey to have more of a tendency towards openness and transparency, as the public records provided through Alaveteli-powered sites are essential to maintaining functional democracies and civic engagement for the 21st century.

What are your future plans for OPRAmachine?

They include marketing the site to New Jersey residents who might be able to benefit either from making a request or reading information that has been requested by other users of the site. Our database of public authorities currently includes all 565 municipal governments within the state along with county government agencies covering all 21 counties within the state of New Jersey.

Also on the horizon are targeted campaigns of requests for specific types of records. Some of our users have expressed interest in campaigning for certain types of records, such as police internal affairs summary reports, salary and pension data and other types of frequently requested records.

We have also added many New Jersey state agencies to OPRAmachine; however we have been encountering resistance, particularly from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, which has been refusing to answer any requests emailed through the site. The AG is trying to force requesters to make use of their clunky, proprietary web interface to submit OPRA requests, which does not provide the same document sharing or time tracking features that the Alaveteli software that powers our site. The requesters and site administration are currently evaluating our legal position, and we may need to pursue legal action to ensure that requests sent from OPRAmachine are adequately answered. This will likely be something that will take months or years to resolve conclusively.

What has been the most interesting response to a request received on OPRAmachine so far?

Some authorities are attempting to require requestors to fill out a paper form. Typically after the requestor replies and says that the email sent via OPRAmachine is sufficient, the authority complied. Another interesting situation has arisen with the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. They are currently refusing all requests sent via our Alaveteli installation, and instead directing users to their proprietary online request form. We have filed a petition with the attorney general to change the regulations that they are trying to use as basis to deny the requests and will be sharing more on that in the future.

One other thing to note is that we have spoken to some employees of the government agencies listed on OPRAmachine, and some have even said that they have found all of the public information on the site to be useful for conducting their own research and checking up on how neighboring jurisdictions are performing, an unintended but positive usage of our platform, showing how Freedom of Information platforms can provide value to all stakeholders, not just requestors.

What advice would you give to other people around the world who would like to set up an FOI platform?

I would encourage anybody to be knowledgeable of the legal issues surrounding your country’s Freedom of Information laws and how changes in legal precedent can affect the types of information that can be obtained using Freedom of Information. Those considering operating an FOI platform should be prepared to advocate for the legal rights of your users, as well as looking for opportunities to work collaboratively with public bodies when possible.

Secondly, I think it is absolutely essential to know who your userbase is and to be responsive to their needs. A strong userbase and trustworthy volunteers are essential to ensure that these types of transparency initiatives can scale to meet increasing demand. To that end, recruiting a team of users and volunteers that are passionate about your project will go a long way.

Many thanks to Gavin for taking the time to answer our questions. We’re really pleased to see the impacts of the site already, and look forward to following the team’s progress in making New Jersey a more transparent and less corrupt place.

We’ll particularly be following along via the OPRAmachine blog, which already contains great resources such this video explainer of how records custodians can use the site (see below), and this animation on how OPRAmachine works (see above). Hopefully these resources will also be useful to the wider Alaveteli community!

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