Fast Facts on Public Records Reform - #5

Posted on July 29, 2015

Over the last week, leading right up to the Massachusetts Legislature’s August recess, we’ve published a piece every day in a blog series highlighting “fast facts” about the failings of our state’s public records law. It is our hope to keep the story focused on why action needs to be taken as soon as possible and to urge a vote on Bill H. 3665, an act to improve public records, in both the State House of Representatives and Senate before they leave Beacon Hill for a month, or as soon as possible thereafter. To read the full series and more from this campaign, go here. To petition your legislator in support, act here!

Here is “Fast Fact” #5:

The Massachusetts public records law hasn’t been substantially updated since 1973, long before personal computers and the internet came into play. As a result, the system inefficiently handles electronic documents and often blocks access to files that would be easily, and cheaply, available to the public by just posting them online. Agencies often provide records in paper or other non-searchable forms, even when cheaper, more useful digital records already exist. They even print out records such as spreadsheets or emails, and charge for the printing costs.

Two perfect examples were reported by Commonwealth Magazine. They wrote that in 2013, the Boston Police refused to give a reporter a spreadsheet in its original format. Instead, they insisted on converting it to a PDF file, which cannot be easily searched and analyzed. They also report that in 2014, the Springfield Police Department charged the American Civil Liberties Union nearly $18,000 for computer printouts of emails regarding an experimental and controversial police program. If they had just sent them the emails electronically, the format they already existed in, the cost would’ve been negligible.

Our proposed bill, H. 3665, seeks to bring our public records law in the 21st century, promoting greater electronic access by urging departments to put more documents online and distribute documents that already exist electronically in an electronic format. It does not mandate a digital archiving project, but simply promotes access to modern files in a modern way. If implemented, public records costs for government should actually decrease.

This is the final “fast fact” of our series. The August recess begins soon and we need the legislature to pass a public records reform bill as soon as possible. Help us make sure they act today!

Office: Common Cause Massachusetts, Common Cause National

Issues: Open Government, More Democracy Reforms

Tags: 21st Century Public Records

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