State lags in online access to public records
It’s a paradox: in a state that prides itself on intellectual capital, Massachusetts ranks 38th out of 50 states when it comes to having online accessibility to public records, according to a national survey released Sunday.
Bits of information such as audit reports, fake business name registrations, consumer complaints, bridge inspection safety reports, child care center inspection reports, hospital inspection reports, school bus inspections, school inspections, safety records, gas pump overcharge records, and death certificates are not archived on the state’s Web site, according to the survey.
The survey was developed as the cornerstone to this year’s Sunshine Week, a national newspaper initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Sunshine Week is coordinated by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ FOI Committee.
Teams of surveyors perused government Web sites in each state, looking for 20 different kinds of public records, according to Sunshineweek.org.
The study was released Sunday to mark the beginning of Sunshine Week, which celebrates the idea of transparency in government.
Texas ranked first when it comes to online accessibility. Mississippi ranked last.
Walter V. Robinson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 2003 as director of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, and is now a Northeastern University journalism professor and director for that school’s New England First Amendment Center, had a blunt assessment for the state public records availability.
“I think we’re horrible,” he said.
Citing the state’s rich history, Robinson lamented the fact that in many ways, “We still operate as if we’re in the 17th century.” For Robinson, making more records available on the Web is a win-win for public departments.
The more information made available online, the less time the office staffs of government agencies have to “spend dealing with us,” said Robinson.
The ability for the public to easily access information is becoming more crucial, said Robinson, as newspaper staffs thin out and news organizations of every stripe downsize. That means there are fewer reporters to run down public records that should be available online.
Robinson said that when records are made available in hard copy form only, sometimes the “search fees and copying fees are so prohibitive that they might as well not be public records.” He recalled the experience of his students attempting to get copies of high-end restaurant inspections in Boston, something that Mayor Thomas Menino had promised would be online several years earlier.
Not only were the records not online, said Robinson, but the city wanted to charge his class $2,000 for copies of the records.
“There’s just no incentive for public officials to do this,” he said.
Alan Cote, the state’s supervisor of public records, holds a “presumption that all records should be available to the public,” whether online or through hard copy at any of the various state departments, agencies or offices.
Just because the state does not have some records online does not necessarily mean the state is less transparent, he said.
The mission of his office is to “provide access regardless of the manner.” “We get records available to the public whether it be in the mail or online,” he said.
He did acknowledge “there’s always room for improvement for opening the doors of government to the people,” in every state.
He said various state departments or municipal departments that oversee the various inspections, files, and records mentioned in the survey should be responsible for posting their records online, not his office.
But as Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition noted, the future of freedom of information is online access.
“And states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance,” said Davis through a statement.
The MetroWest Daily News