Why Government Transparency Matters

 Screenshot of the website the City of Boston published with public information on their proposal to host Amazon’s second headquarters

Screenshot of the website the City of Boston published with public information on their proposal to host Amazon’s second headquarters

In his first inaugural address in 2014, when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh laid out four pillars for his new administration, the final point was a pledge to “increase trust and transparency in city government.” Recent events surrounding the bidding process for Amazon’s second headquarters have brought this to life, suggesting that the City is capable of setting national standards for transparency and open government.

The City proactively created a website, making all of the information about its response to the Amazon headquarters Request for Proposal public. This response to public requests for information about the bid stands in stark contrast to the enthusiastically-redacted documents that investigative journalists at MuckRock received about the incentives offered to Amazon by Montgomery County, Maryland (pictured below).

 Documents released to MuckRock by Montgomery County, Maryland

Documents released to MuckRock by Montgomery County, Maryland

Our team of five Harvard Kennedy School researchers is taking amazon.boston.gov as a model for what the City of Boston can do when it puts its policy, economic development, press and technology teams to work making government decisions understandable and accessible. We’ve spent two months interviewing people on both sides of the public records process in order to figure out how Boston can successfully live up to its own example across more than 70 City departments and agencies.

Learning from City Officials and the Public

To learn more about the process, we talked to experts nationwide. “The process of responding to public records requests is basically a black box to most people,” said Leah Bannon, formerly of 18F, a user-centric digital services firm inside the federal government. This comment echoes what we’ve heard from journalists, activists, researchers, and constituents nationwide. Agencies in charge of records requests often fail to communicate the reasons that certain requests require additional time, leaving requesters in the dark.

“Maybe I didn’t structure my request very well and that’s why it’s taking so long?” said one journalist we interviewed. On top of that, requesters often aren’t given much information about the progress of their request. “Every so often, someone will write back to say they’re still looking,” the journalist added, referring to a particular request sent to the federal government agency.

Many City of Boston departments have responded quickly to public requests. William Wang, a journalist for The Harvard Crimson, requested an incident report from the Boston Police Department and received it in just over an hour. Is this example an anomaly or a frequent occurrence?  Unfortunately, until response times to public records requests are more thoroughly tracked and measured, we simply cannot know.

Mapping the Public Records Request Process

“You can’t have accountability without measurement,” says Michael Morisy, co-founder of Muckrock and a public records expert. It’s not just requesters: City staff that act as custodians of records also suffer from an opaque and unmeasured process. Our research indicates that both requesters and City staff  struggle with less common requests. Requesters are unaware of what records exist, how they’re stored or how to ask for them. Custodians are unaware of the precise intent of the request and may be limited by statute from asking certain questions in an attempt to gain clarity.

Both requesters and custodians are trying to peer through the walls of a black box from opposite sides. Mr. Morisy, who often finds himself in the middle of disputes between requesters and custodians, expressed sympathy for the custodians, stating, “it’s easy for agencies to get tired of journalists requesting 10,000 pages and only using one sentence.”

 A public records request can take a wide variety of routes, and make a large number of stops along the way. In particular, the City of Boston has more than 70 departments and 4 autonomous agencies that all maintain records subject to public request.

A public records request can take a wide variety of routes, and make a large number of stops along the way. In particular, the City of Boston has more than 70 departments and 4 autonomous agencies that all maintain records subject to public request.

The beginning of a public records search is familiar enough. “Almost all public records requests start with searching for the information in Google,” said Ms. Bannon, sharing a finding from 18F research for the recent foia.gov overhaul at the federal level. However, once your search engine of choice delivers you to an individual agency or government records portal, all bets are off. Current processes are highly decentralized and variable. Although helpful resources such as boston.gov/public-records are available, requesters often find a public email address without further guidance and begin the awkward process of writing a specific request for something that may or may not exist, or that might even be publicly available if they only knew where to look.

Requesters bring expectations for high-quality services based on their favorite commercial/private-sector products, and while these can be difficult standards to meet, the differences can help clarify points of frustration for both requesters and custodians. “It would be nice to have a portal where you track your request, see where you are in the process, like we have for packages,” stated one interviewee.

Many commercially available tools try to replace paper, email, and Excel to provide that type of transparent tracking. Boston has allocated resources for an IT investment in this area, although even low-cost tools may be out of reach for smaller jurisdictions. However, both Mr. Morisy and William Isaac, a data scientist for the Human Right Data Analytics Group, were even more excited about online communities that curate knowledge, such as Wikipedia, Genius and Stack Overflow. According to Mr. Morisy, “Most of the current crop of public records management software is far better than the legacy systems they’re replacing and are doing us all a great service, but to some extent they’re just porting processes developed in the 70’s to the web.”

In other words, our team has discovered the importance of updating not just the technology used in this process, but our understanding of how knowledge can be created and maintained. Our research has given us insight into the challenge of navigating a complex information system without a map or the ability to learn from others’ experiences. It is a challenge that digital tools are only just now coming online to tackle.

Here in Boston, we’re excited to continue to work with the City of Boston to figure out what technology and tools might help the City employee and public requester alike.

Erica, Jackie, Jim, Jon, and Thad

Teaming Up for Transparency

  The Public Records homepage for the City of Boston (Source:    boston.gov )

The Public Records homepage for the City of Boston (Source: boston.gov)

Have you ever had a question about how a decision was made by your city or town? In Massachusetts, by law, every person has a right to access the government’s public records.

In today’s climate of activism and citizen engagement, there is a strong need for government transparency and accountability. Many groups submit public records requests in order to engage directly with government and learn more about its work on issues that matter most to them.

"We value transparency as a way to keep constituents involved and engaged," said Jeanethe Falvey, Chief Digital Officer for the City of Boston. "We're committed to making the Public Records Request process as seamless as we can."

The federal equivalent of the Public Records Law—the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—has been lauded as “a vital tool for keeping government open and honest.” One effect of these laws has been to get government agencies in the mindset of posting their information publicly, from the Food and Drug Administration helping the public avoid contamination by distributing information about a listeria outbreak in ice cream, to the Department of Energy accelerating innovation by sharing details on recent scientific discoveries.

Despite such benefits, many people do not know how to file a public records request with their own city, or find the existing process to be daunting. How might the City of Boston reimagine the public records request experience for advocates, journalists, and the public to advance good governance? And how can the City proactively surface the most relevant information, making it easy to access without a formal request process?

Our Team

 Our first meeting with the City of Boston team

Our first meeting with the City of Boston team

Enter our team. We are students from the Harvard Kennedy School Tech and Innovation in Government Field Class, taught by Adjunct Lecturer and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Nick Sinai. Our diverse backgrounds provide us with an interdisciplinary approach to this challenge:

  • Jackie Chea is currently a junior at Harvard College studying applied math and biology, and will be a Program Manager Intern for Microsoft’s Windows team this summer. She is excited to devote her efforts to the realm of civic technology.

  • Thad Kerosky is a Master’s student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, coming into public policy from a background as a full-stack developer. He has worked on new sustainable energy, agriculture, open data and education social enterprise projects from East and West Africa, D.C. and Cambridge over the past decade. Thad has been a Code for Boston enthusiast since 2013 and is now part of its core team.

  • Jim Moffet is a Master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design who is passionate about discovering the strengths and weaknesses of the use of technology as a lever for social change. After five years as a product manager for SEIU, he spent a Fulbright fellowship in Budapest teaching design thinking at public fablabs and co-founded the Cambridge civic tech start-ups Commit.vote and Outvote.io.

  • Erica Pincus is passionate about increasing access to opportunity and solving persistent challenges in new and innovative ways. She previously served as a Policy Advisor and Special Assistant for Social Innovation for the Obama White House, where she supported the development of data-driven and technology-enabled policy solutions. Erica is currently pursuing a dual MPA/MBA degree between Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

  • Jon Truong became interested in using digital tools to advance positive social change in urban settings through his work as a housing and tenant rights researcher and advocate in Los Angeles. He wants to explore opportunities for collaboration between the private, public, and non-profit sector to increase civic engagement, elevate public discourse, and address inequality in historically marginalized communities. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

We are excited to be working with Laura Melle (Senior Procurement Lead, DoIT), Shawn Williams (Director of Public Records), and Reilly Zlab (Product Management, DoIT) from the City of Boston to reimagine the public records request experience.

Requesting a Record: How Things are Done Now

Massachusetts law defines public records to include all documentary materials or data made or received by any officer or employee of any Massachusetts governmental entity, with a few narrow exemptions. Police records, rally permits, construction updates, and city events calendars are all considered public records.

Some city information is already readily available to the public, such as the information housed on Analyze Boston, the city’s open data portal. But for other information, how would a person know which of the city’s 72 Departments to contact?

 The homepage for the City of Boston’s open data portal (Source:  data.boston.gov )

The homepage for the City of Boston’s open data portal (Source: data.boston.gov)

Currently, to formally request a record, one would contact the Records Access Officer (RAO) with a description of the desired information. The RAO, in compliance with the Massachusetts Public Records Law, then has ten business days to respond to the request--either providing the requested record, providing a fee estimate (where applicable), or denying access if the record meets one of the narrow exemptions.

 Sample public records request (Source:  www.sec.state.ma.us )

Sample public records request (Source: www.sec.state.ma.us)

The Challenge

The City’s Director of Public Records is working to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, while improving the experience for both requesters and records custodians. In support of that mission, our team’s goals are to:

  1. Make public records easier for the public to find and use

  2. Make it easier for the City of Boston to provide individuals seeking information with the relevant public records

Next Steps

Our approach to this project will be guided by the technology sector's best practices, including designing with rather than for records custodians and requesters via user-centered design.

As we enter our user research phase, we will be seeking out different types of users, including, but not limited to, researchers, activists, civil society organizations, individuals making requests out of personal interest, and staff of various City departments. We wish to find out what information they seek, and whether that information is readily available. We are looking forward to listening to their stories and hearing more about how Boston’s public records request process can better serve their needs.

If you want to learn more or have thoughts on our project, please contact us at innovategov.bostonrecords@gmail.com. Stay tuned!

Erica, Jackie, Jim, Jon, and Thad