Motherhood, apple pie and transparency seem to be things every politician supports. But Massachusetts stretches the gulf between rhetoric and the reality. The Commonwealth’s public records law looks great — public entities must respond within 10 days, there’s an appeals process, and sanctions for violating the law.
But the reality is much different. Most state agencies routinely flout the law in practice and utilize loopholes to defeat its spirit.
Pioneer Institute and MuckRock have partnered to file a series of public records requests during the past year to gain access to public documents around critical issues like economic development policies and how the 2006 health care reform is being implemented. Your tax dollars pay for these documents and, by law, we are entitled to have access to these public documents.
On average, those state agencies fulfilling our requests (when they fulfilled them at all) took 69 days, not 10. A number of agencies took much longer. The Executive Office of Economic Development took 228 days (after multiple followups) to produce a partial response to our inquiry. UMass-Dartmouth Law School took 280 days to provide basic data on student achievement. But the State Lottery took first (or is it last?) place, taking 427 days to fulfill a public records request.
Time to respond is only one of many breaches of the public trust. Agencies often employ a standard set of insider tricks that violate the spirit of the public records law. One prominent ploy is selective use of technology. Many agencies seem to prefer responding to data requests in (space-hogging, difficult-to-search) pdf format files, rather than the format that the information originally existed in.
Other agencies insisted that their responses had to be printed. Combine that with a suddenly expansive view of each request, and the printing and labor fee that the state can charge ballooned. Several of Pioneer’s requests were greeted with compliance cost estimates of over $50,000. One state entity claimed that its six-figure-salaried director of communications would work, personally, on the request for two straight weeks.
“No responsive documents” was another common reply. This was the repeated response to requests for documentation of previous experience with solar energy on the part of the state agencies investing in Evergreen Solar. Sadly, the multi-million dollar loss of taxpayer funds seems less surprising in this context.
Another ruse is to attach definitions that are absurdly narrow to public documents in order to place them outside the domain covered by public records law. One example will suffice: We sought a state employment report that the Comptroller’s Office posts every two weeks. Their response: It’s “not a standard report and therefore not available.” Apparently a biweekly, public report is only biweekly, not standard.
Finally, the office charged with aiding aggrieved requestors has a spotty record of enforcing the state’s public records law. By law, requestors can bring their grievances to the secretary of state. That office’s typical response is no response, as few appeals get ruled on and there is almost no repercussion for agencies refusing to comply with the law unless the requester is willing and able to mount a costly legal challenge.
Talking the “transparency” talk is easy. Unfortunately, precious few politicians and political appointees walk the walk. As the remarkably consistent flouting of the public records laws shows, state bureaucrats and the politicians who lead them view transparency as little more than a rhetorical talking point. In an age when the Internet gives timely access to all kinds of information, it is outrageous to see the constant obfuscation of public documents. Transparency should be more than a talking point; it should be a solemn obligation to the taxpayers who fund our government.