According to Massachusetts public records law, an agency has ten days to respond to a request. According to anybody who’s actually filed a Massachusetts public records request, the actual wait time varies greatly, with data complied from MuckRock requests putting the average response time at a whopping 79 days – just a little over two months.
As an experiment, last October MuckRock and Pioneer asked ten Massachusetts state agencies for their FY15 internal operating budget, as well as the requested budget for FY16. This was specifically intended to be as straightforward as possible – a version of the information is available on Mass.gov, and we decided that we would treat an agency linking to that information as having fulfilled the request.
Although, under the law, one would expect ten identical requests to yield ten reasonably identical responses, as you can see below, that was very much not the case, with no two requests yielding the same results.
Department of Transportation – Responsive docs and Mass.gov link two days after clarification
Massachusetts State Lottery – Responsive docs three days after clarification
Massachusetts Port Authority – Responsive docs a week after request
Department of Public Safety – Responsive docs a week after clarification
Department of Labor Relations – Link to Mass.gov two weeks after request
Department of Revenue – Link to Mass.gov two weeks after request
Department of Environmental Protection – Responsive docs a month after request
Massachusetts State Police – Link to Mass.gov a month after request
Department of Education – Responsive docs two and a half months after request
Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission – After initially linking to Mass.gov a day after the request, the ABCC responded a month later with a $10.50 processing fee for the records.
MassDOT was also the only agency to point us to the Mass.gov link and provide additional documentation. To give credit where it’s due, both MassPort and the Lottery went above and beyond, calling for clarification within a day of the request, and providing responsive documents within a week. The Department of Public Safety also deserves recognition for having completed the request well within the 10-day time frame. Labors Relations and, surprisingly, Revenue, were just over the limit, which is notably, as both simply linked to the publicly available information. DEP took a full month, but provided actual documentation, while State Police took the same time to provide just a link to the general state budget, rather than the specific page containing their information
The two most extreme outlines deserve special attention – Education took two weeks to just acknowledge the request, and provided documents two months later, taking almost seven times the legally-mandated 10-day limit. They blamed the delay in part on the fact that we weren’t using their information request portal. Leaving aside the problematic issue of the government’s growing reliance on these portals (which are one-sided and leave no public record of communication, giving the agency plausible deniability), legally, agencies aren’t allowed to force a requester to use them, and the same laws apply no matter the form the request is submitted in.
On the other hand, the ABCC was actually the very first agency to complete the request to the Mass.gov link, but they continued to process related documents after that, eventually sending us the one bill we received. Although the $10.50 price tag is fairly reasonable by Massachusetts standards, the fact that we were being charged at all for information that by their own admission was available online was a reminder of just how bizarre the Massachusetts public records experience can get.
With a strong public records reform bill having passed the Senate, and Governor Baker making it clear that transparency should be a priority, there’s hope for a more open Commonwealth coming to us soon. But as the budget census highlights, we don’t just need a stronger law – we need agencies to follow the laws we already have.
J. Patrick Brown is the Editor of Muckrock.com, an organization which facilitates public record requests and serves as an independent news source covering government transparency issues nationwide.