Massachusetts’ score dropped from 74 – a C – in 2012, though it ranked 12th among the states in that first go-round. The two scores are not directly comparable due to improvements and updates to the project and its methodology, like eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that occurs only once every 10 years.
Still, some patterns can be gleaned from their differences. The 2015 project included questions throughout asking whether government data is available to citizens in low-cost, open, digital formats.
For Massachusetts, where inflamed colonists led the rebellion against tyrannical British rule, the scores illuminate the gulf separating it from its treasured legacy as that shining “city upon a hill.” From the lush Cape Cod cranberry bogs to the fish piers of Gloucester and west into the luminous Berkshire Mountains, the Massachusetts citizen reveres the state that incubated the nation’s governing structure as one working for the people, not the other way around.
Imagine the reactions of rabble-rousers John Adams, his cousin Sam and neighbor John Hancock, on learning of the slim accountability practiced by the “Great and General Court” – a haughty New England term for a legislature they helped launch. Or that of legendary Massachusetts jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., on hearing of his beloved judiciary’s F rating for accountability.
Lots of Fs and Ds
Massachusetts’ lowest scores came in the public records, judicial accountability and lobbying categories — all F’s. It earned a D- in civil service and executive accountability, four additional Ds for legislative accountability, state budget process, pension transparency and ethics oversight.
Contributing to the low grades is a statute denying easy online access to the statements of financial interests filed annually by legislators, judges, elected officials and high-ranking state employees. Others factors are the lack of a uniform auditing process for disclosures and a loophole that allows influence-seekers to legally bestow gifts on a public employee’s immediate family — unless the giver is a registered lobbyist.
A bright spot in Massachusetts came via the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, earning the state’s only A for the category for campaign financing, and propelling it to 1st in the nation for its data-driven transparency and accountability systems. Massachusetts also earned a respectable B- grade for election oversight.
The F branded on Massachusetts since 2012 for its terrible access to public records hasn’t gone anywhere.
“That F got a lot of notoriety around here,” said former state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, now with the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
But it was not enough to overcome obstacles to change.
The state legislature, judiciary and governor’s office are exempt from the open records law, passed in 1973. There also are dozens of other exemptions in Massachusetts’ laws applying to numerous agencies in the executive branch that permit those entities to withhold records from the public.
Routine records, from agency emails to internal datasets, can take weeks or months to obtain from state agencies, at costs running from a few hundred dollars to the not-unheard-of multi-million-dollar bills sent to some requesters.
Sullivan is optimistic a bill snaking its way through the legislative process could bring needed changes, such as the awarding of attorneys’ fees to stymied requesters and ensuring more electronic access to government documents.
“It’s been a top subject at the statehouse,” Sullivan said. “I’m very hopeful we’ll be getting out of an F grade and moving up.”
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the constitutionally-mandated overseer of transparency in Massachusetts, has declined repeated requests since January to discuss the open records law or the State Integrity scorecard. He oversees three of the 13 categories evaluated in the State Integrity investigation, the most of any single agency head.