Imagine going to your local bakery and ordering a loaf of bread. After a few minutes, you’re unceremoniously handed a thick, charred lump of carbon in a paper bag. When you protest, the baker explains that yeast is expensive to source, difficult to use correctly, and takes time to rise. If you’re going to be unreasonable and insist on leavened bread, they’ll make it for you – but it’ll cost you, you’d better be ready to wait, and there’s no guarantee that what you get is going to be any good.
As outlandish as that scenario sounds, it’s not far removed from the reality of being a public records requester who makes the mistake of asking for an agency’s emails.
Despite being a foundational part of our professional lives and for many, the primary means of doing business, agencies in Massachusetts treat emails like some sort of highly radioactive waste, to be contained at all costs. That “at all costs” line isn’t a joke, either – the most routine requests concerning emails can come with price tags of thousands or sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars. Gov. Baker’s budget promises reform, and it’s long overdue.
To be fair, this isn’t strictly a Massachusetts problem – the city of McKinney, Texas, drew national attention when it slapped Gawker with a $79,000 processing fee for emails concerning the officer at the center of the recent pool party video controversy – but ubiquity is no excuse. Why is email such a problem?
There are two issues here, both technical, but with varying degrees of human error.
First is the email search. Agencies routinely claim that search and segregation of emails is not only incredibly time-consuming, but requires a certain degree of technological aptitude. Keyword searches, for example, are rejected whole cloth as being beyond the capabilities of their email clients. Now, anybody who’s used Gmail recently can dispute this – the reason people ask for keywords is because we know how easy it is to use them.
If we are to take the agency’s word at face value, then whatever mail platform the Commonwealth is operating on is so obsolete as to be worse than useless. Records requests are the least of the agencies’ problems; if you can’t efficiently access inter-departmental communications, then you’re at best woefully inefficient, and at worst a lawsuit waiting to happen. Invest in an upgrade, or better yet, try Gmail. It’s free.
Second is the cost of printing and redacting the email by hand. Yes, you read that correctly. Despite explicit instructions from the Commonwealth’s supervisor of public records to provide records in digital format, several agencies refuse to do so, and go through the timely, expensive, and frankly stupid process of printing out thousands of pages just to scratch out a name or two. Their reasoning? If they released the information digitally, there is no way to guarantee its integrity. In other words, somebody could alter the text and implant false information, making the agency look bad.
Putting aside the issue that there are easier (and faster) ways to falsify information than by editing a public records request, Massachusetts is home to the largest concentration of technical talent on the East coast. This is the kind of problem that MIT could bang out a solution to before lunchtime.
Fortunately, there is a potential solution on the way. Reforms, led by Gov. Baker’s proposed $5 million overhaul of the aging MassMail system – would address both these issues once and for all, leaving agencies with no more excuses. Here’s our chance to once again be a leader, Massachusetts. Or at the very least, to join the 21st century.
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.