February 12, 2016

Looking for some information about the General Court?  Need to contact the clerk of the House for information about the business of the chamber?  You’ll have to use the phone as there’s no email information provided—and who uses the phone these days? 

I study state legislatures, and I am even teaching a class on state legislatures this semester.  When I tell people that, they often ask me about the Massachusetts state legislature, and I have to tell them that it’s not one of the states I study. Why is that they (and you) might ask?  To put it bluntly, it’s because the website of the General Court stinks.  It does.  I’ve spent a lot of time poking around state legislative websites for other states, and I have to say, we are among the worst in terms of providing good information to the public. 

How about information on who works in these institutions?  Yes, you can find contact information for your legislator, but how about the staffers who work in those offices?  Can’t even find a name (well, maybe you can, but you, like me, would probably give up after a good deal of searching). Compare that to the state legislative website of Colorado, which provides a full contact list for all employees of the state legislature

Want to know how your representative voted on a particular issue?  You can find it, but you’ll have to dig (Or maybe not.  I tried to find an example to link to, but gave up after 15 minutes of futile searching).  Compare that to Oregon’s state legislative website, where you can gain easy access to information not just about how your legislator voted on the floor, but also about what happened in committee hearings for a given bill.  I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that our state legislature and indeed, the government of the Commonwealth, does a really bad job of making information easily and readily available to the public.

It’s not just me who has noticed this.  The Boston Globe and other media outlets have called attention to the issue, with the Globe going so far as to file a lawsuit against the state.  The Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts an F for Public Access to Information, ranking us 40th out of all states.   In particular, the Center notes there is no law in the Commonwealth that requires government to publish data online in an open format.  How is this so?  Isn’t our state capital located in one of the top cities for start-ups, entrepreneurship and tech in general

Thankfully, the media attention generated has led to movement on the issue as the House and the Senate recently approved measures to strengthen and update our public records law; they’re working on reconciling these measure which will hopefully move to Gov. Baker’s desk soon.   This is a good first step.  But even this law won’t address the issues I described above.  Why not?  Because the state legislature has conveniently exempted itself from these rules.  

I’d like to say I am hopeful that the current update of public records law is a good first step.  But I am not optimistic.  It’s likely that this issue will fade from the public eye.  I hope it doesn’t.  In my book, this an issue that the general public ought to care about—not just those of us who follow state politics for a living.  How can we hold our politicians accountable if we don’t know what they’re doing?  You can bet I’ll continue to keep an eye on this issue.  I’d love to add data on the General Court to my research projects; here’s to hoping that one day I can.

Massachusetts legislature, public records

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