On February 25, 2016 the Civic Innovation Project teamed up with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Government Lawyer’s Committee of the Women’s Bar Association and the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy to host “Governing in a Digital Age,” a symposium centered on issues related to public records law and public data, that was recently featured in Boston College Law School Magazine. Amy Nable, director for the Division of Open Government in the Office of the Attorney General, moderated the first panel: “Public Records Reform: Challenges and Opportunities.” Panelists highlighted recent efforts made to update the state’s public records laws and the way in which these laws affect government transparency and personal privacy concerns.
Panelist Lon Povich launched the initial discussion. As the governor’s chief legal counsel, Povich addressed the ways in which his office expects to improve the executive branch’s compliance with the existing public records law. How exactly does one make a process about transparency more transparent? According to Povich, the office is attempting to make things more reasonable by establishing policies that will lower the cost of document production, encourage online publication of the most frequently requested documents, and reduce production time from 10 days to five.
He stressed, however, that enforcement is “out of our purview.” Relatedly, panelist Gavi Wolfe, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said, “those of us who work with the law find it unenforceable and unaffordable.” Massachusetts is currently one of only three states operating without an attorneys’ fees provision in its public records law. However, such a provision would provide an “incentive to the record keeper to disclose the records appropriately in the first place,” said Wolfe. Further, record custodians are the only ones able to truly make an assessment as to how much time information for a request will take to collect and redact. As such, much of the discussion shifted to the legislative advocacy being considered in the House and Senate.
As Wolfe explained, both chambers appear to be in favor of addressing costs and response time. The response time was also a crucial component of discussion, given the“avalanche of requests” that pour in, according to Richard Johnston, who serves as chief legal counsel in the Attorney General’s Office. To support Attorney General Healey’s goal of greater transparency with public records, the office has “endeavored to broaden our public records request and limit exemptions when truly appropriate,” said Johnston. Jon Albano, a partner at Morgan Lewis, stressed the need to humanize the public records system. “At one level, we need some sympathy for the people responding to these requests,” he added. He noted that records custodians might be facing pressure from their supervisors and that the process of redaction is somewhat cumbersome without advances in technology.
To kick off the second panel on “Data Driven Leadership,” Civic Innovation Project Founder Lourdes German posed the following question to panelists: “What’s the data-driven story we’re going to tell citizens?”
For Holly St. Clair, the answer was simple: “Data is the language of the 21st century government.” St. Clair, who serves as the director of Enterprise Data Management for the Commonwealth, explained that data is how we invite people from the private sphere to figure out solutions to pressing problems in the public sphere. Careful to mention that data isn’t always right, she said, “We figure it out by talking to people, hearing [their] stories and comparing it to our data.”
Mayor Marty Walsh’s Chief of Staff Dan Koh couldn’t agree more. “In a democracy, government is a process of folks articulating different visions and concerns,” he said. The use of data in this process is therefore a “mutually enhancing experience” that “helps folks speak a common language and make better decisions.”
One way government leaders can make those better decisions is to use data to eliminate the “touches” it takes to deliver better government service. According to Jennifer Sullivan, assistant secretary for capital finance in the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, “we want to reduce administrative burden to get citizens what they need.”
Much of Sullivan’s work is focused on figuring out how to make the wisest investment of the Commonwealth’s resources, an effort she thinks can be helped by incorporating data into policy. As she puts it, the data her office uses and finds relevant really “depends on your lens.”
The panel itself adopted a wider lens to the discussion by inviting Anthony Flint, fellow and director of public affairs for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, to comment on how data-driven leadership has affected the journalism community.
Flint said that newspapers have been assembling “terrific data teams” aimed at analyzing and packaging data – a role that has created a “great new frontier.” He commented on his hopes to use satellite imagery to come up with “an urban observatory for cities worldwide for city planners to figure out what needs to be done.”
For now, residents can rest assured that city and state leaders are consistently brainstorming and developing ways to use data and technology in their communications and decision-making.
“We want more insight as to what Bostonians are feeling,” said Koh. “The burden is on us to show you the value in giving us that data.”
About The Author Andrea Clavijo is a candidate for a Juris Doctorate Degree at Boston College Law School, and has had professional experiences that include serving as a legal extern at the U.S. Department of Labor, legal internships at Telecommunications Management Group, Inc., National Grid, and the Middlesex District Attorney's Officer. Ms. Clavijo is a leader in the Boston College Law School community, and was recently profiled in the winter issue of the Boston College Law School Magazine, at this link, and we invite you to read more about her.
Photo Credits: Boston College Law Magazine & Reba Saldanha Photography