Transparency, To a Point

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Just 99 days after filing the first in a series of requests, I finally received some records from the Massachusetts’ Human Resources Division yesterday. I had planned to blog again on the issue after the counter hit 100 days, so the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is saved by the bell.

And what a bargain: For 6 pages, Pioneer Institute paid just $61.33 per sheet. The Division of Human Resources graciously waived the 64 cents postage fee, but a number of questions still linger. When Governor Deval Patrick took office, for example, he promised a “more modern and accessible and accountable” government. While there have been some progress (MassDot has rightly won praise for some of its transparency initiatives), transparency is often most important where it’s least wanted, and the latest results are disheartening. While I’m glad to finally receive the documents Pioneer paid for, we specifically requested, repeatedly and clearly, the request be fulfilled “electronically, by e-mail attachment if available or CD-ROM if not.” Instead, we receive a spreadsheet printed out on 6 pages, unsearchable, unsortable and unwieldy, at additional expense to Commonwealth taxpayers and, again belying Patrick’s own rhetoric, unnecessarily wasting fossil fuels.

It’s a dull comfort to know that I’m not alone: The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack uncovered a web of costly severance agreements that required former state employees’ non-disparagement of their former employer and which were tied to payments of over $10 million across at least 16 state agencies and over 150 cases. These secrecy pacts even extended into Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office, despite the state’s broad admonitions against such agreements.

And the old tactic of printing electronic records, degrading their usefulness, is nothing new either: Mayor Thomas M. Menino did the same thing in 2009, burying request materials in more than 5,000 pages of printed material dropped off at night outside of City Hall.

Exorbitant fees, unreasonable delays and inaccessible formats are all upheld by the courts to be unnecessary and improper impediments to public access, but they have sadly become everyday tactics as few individuals and even organizations have the time and money needed to launch suit after suit to simply get the information they have a legal right to receive. The citizens of Massachusetts deserve better from their elected officials, particularly when the Patrick administration has claimed “transparency” as a pillar of its administration.

In the meantime, I’ll be combing through the data and working to re-digitize it so that anyone can view it, analyze it and come to their own conclusions about the effectiveness of current Massachusetts’ policy, all right here on the Pioneer Institute’s website. Transparency made easy: What a concept.