This Sunshine Week, New Hope for Massachusetts’ Transparency — With Caveats

The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.

By Michael Morisy | MuckRock

Public record laws are a bit like bad drivers: Almost everybody thinks their state’s are the worst, and often times there’s some truth to it. State laws are all frustrating in their own unique ways. That said, Massachusetts’ transparency practices, like its infamous drivers, really are some of the worst.

A new law that went into effect earlier this year, however, is already showing promise in changing the most important aspect of any successful public records program: the culture.

While requesters are understandably (and I would argue justifiably) annoyed that the law included provisions that stretch out mandated response times for up to two-and-a-half months, cities are taking concrete steps to better manage the process.

The first steps are simple ones. Having a log of requests and a designated records access officer means that agencies have a process and someone accountable. These are two things critical to any functioning service and two items that were almost universally lacking in Massachusetts before the new law took effect. Some jurisdictions are going even farther, devoting new personnel to public records issues. The City of Boston hired Shawn Williams away from the state’s Public Records Division, and Cambridge is working to hire a dedicated public records officer as well.

I don’t think those moves are a coincidence. While added bureaucracy doesn’t always mean better results, it’s a positive sign that officials are taking public records more seriously.

It’s not just government employees taking notice. Thanks to the possibility of recovering fees, lawyers are taking notice too. Having helped file over 30,000 records requests across all 50 states, I believe recouping legal fees — coupled with strong legal precedent — is one of the few common threads between where a public records law can work for the citizens and where it can be a battle against intractable excuses (although within every state, there’s both good and bad agencies aplenty).

With these changes, we’re already seeing growing pains. Towns have complained loudly and longly that the new law is an unfunded mandate, coming at a time when they are already struggling to keep budgets balanced (I’m waiting for the inevitable line of attack that snow plows had to be pulled to pay for public records). 

It’s true that many cities and towns throughout the commonwealth have archaic data management systems and document management practices, and what seems like a simple ask can take hours of work. Those upgrades are costly. But municipalities that do invest in better systems and processes will find it’s not just transparency advocates who will benefit. Municipal staff should benefit too as information can flow more freely internally, questions can be answered more quickly, and constituent concerns can be more precisely addressed. Plus, it’s easier to recruit and retain talented employees with a modern, data-driven office environment, where quick retrieval of information is becoming the norm (if an admittedly uneven one).

The real opportunity is for all of the above to help shift Massachusetts’ culture. In almost no other state have I seen public officials routinely express such a sense of ownership over their data, when in reality public officials are properly custodians of the people’s data.

Changing that culture won’t be easy and will require a bit of carrot and stick, which is why attorney’s fees are so important. Savvy agencies will stop focusing on the burden that public records present and see it as an opportunity to better explain their mission and engage with the constituents to whom they’re ultimately responsible.

Michael Morisy is founder of MuckRock.

Above photo taken by David Rosen and used with permission.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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