Sunshine Week offers lessons in government transparency

Photo by Tom Nash
Sunshine Week is a time to highlight the importance of open government.

The following post was written by UEP student Tom Nash.

Sunshine Week, a nationally celebrated government transparency event held around James Madison’s birthday, usually serves as a chance for journalists to lecture and offer deserved scolding to local, state and national governments that make obtaining public records unnecessarily difficult.

As a journalist turned Tufts Master of Public Policy student, I wanted my peers to know why government records are important to policy makers. We wanted to look at how government records can be used to examine and evaluate policy at the ground level, as well as to peak at some of the more bizarre items in the filing cabinet. So we invited MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests, to share the dirt.

Held at Canopy City, a nonprofit and startup workspace operating in Somerville, about three dozen people joined some of us MPP students to hear from Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism founder Chris Faraone and a public records overview from MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy.*

Morisy began with the basics: Any government document is essentially the property of us taxpayers, per the Freedom of Information Act put into place by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, except for the ones that aren’t for a host of reasons ranging from national security to individual privacy.

The work of public records is in keeping governments, whether federal, state, or local, honest and efficient in releasing documents. MuckRock, founded in 2010* and at one point incubated at the Boston Globe, has now released more than a million pages of documents.

That’s not counting the millions that were just released following a CIA lawsuit, which has so far yielded dozens of factoids about a Cold War era agency obsessed with writing the perfect one liner and even the Soviet telepathy gap.  

What does that kind of Tom Clancy nightmare stuff have to do with UEP? A lot, actually. It may not be surprising that the CIA’s imagination ran wild, but at a local level we have police departments armed to the teeth with military equipment. And for every atomic bomb near-miss scenario, there’s the gas leaks that plague Massachusetts.

Photo by Tom Nash
Several MPP students and members of the public gathered for an event with MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests.

Whether we’re talking about how police use taxpayer funds or whether local officials are turning a blind eye to public safety hazards, public records provide insight into the work government at all levels is, or isn’t, doing. As policy students, knowing how to file a public records request, and what to file for, is an essential skill to learn. Campaign finance records, traffic and parking studies, environmental impact reports — all of it is theoretically at our fingertips.

Because the laws around public records are so broad, government transparency policy has evolved into a world of shaming and advocating for those laws to be followed. Massachusetts, for example, has earned an “F” rating for dodging much of its responsibility to fulfill public records requests. It’s on us to hold officials accountable for following the law, which is one of the reasons MuckRock has become a mainstay in the realm media and transparency.

Our Sunshine Week session at Canopy City included more in-depth training from MuckRock staffers Beryl Lipton and JPat Brown, and finished with a FOIA Karaoke round of unsuspecting MPP students asked to give presentations based on government PowerPoint slides. Like public records in general, it was more fun that it might sound.

*I worked with Faraone on The Somerville Files, a series that ran in Dig Boston in 2013. I also became one of MuckRock’s first users in 2010, and served as its first news editor between 2012 and 2013. Writing about exploding toilets was among many highlights.