Transparency and reality

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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.