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