Full disclosure

Full Disclosure data

It’s a simple equation: Transparency is only as good as the access available to public documents.

But simple doesn’t always mean easy. Despite living in an age when a click of the mouse can get you records from hundreds of government agencies around the country — even around the world if you speak the language — Massachusetts lags far behind in making its books and files easily accessible to the public.

We at CommonWealth magazine are working to make sure public records are readily available. Beginning with this issue, we are posting on our current website records and documents from state, county and local government that will help people see what their elected and appointed officials are doing. It’s a project we call “Full Disclosure.”

The first records we are making available are the Statements of Financial Interest from more than 300 officials, including all members of the Legislature, the constitutional officers, the governor’s cabinet, selected state policymakers, and elected and appointed county officials.

The Statements of Financial Interest, which detail an official’s outside income, real estate, and business holdings, are available to the public — but not easily attainable. The documents are not online. They can only be obtained by going to the State Ethics Commission and producing identification that is passed along to the official whose filing you are reviewing. Each file also costs $1.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, but together they make records that are supposed to be public largely inaccessible. As a result, CommonWealth is making an end-run around the process. We are buying the Statements of Financial Interest and posting them on our website for everyone to see anytime they want.

We have also posted the so-called per diem payments for state lawmakers, those daily stipends paid to senators and representatives for travel, meals, and lodging whether the Legislature is in session or not. You can get them by downloading an Excel spreadsheet; note that each PDF is for multiple lawmakers.

But Full Disclosure will not be limited to just those types of records. Last spring, CommonWealth had a detailed story about special education spending and funding that included extensive data not readily available to the general public and information we compiled from other sources.

Full Disclosure will expand further once we launch our new website this winter. There will be more information and the information will be available in an expanded sortable and searchable format. In essence, as we come across information of interest to the public, we will seek to make it available.

We invite readers to send us comments on the documents we post and send us ideas for records or information they believe are important to keep tabs on government or documents that are supposed to be public record but cannot be obtained or easily accessed.

It is, after all, in the interest of Full Disclosure.

Full Disclosure data

SFI filings
October 27, 2009
Financial disclosure forms for more than 250 elected and appointed officials in Massachusetts.

Per diem payments
October 27, 2009
These daily stipends paid to senators and representatives for travel, meals, and lodging whether the Legislature is in session or not. You can get view them by downloading an Excel spreadsheet; note that each PDF is for multiple lawmakers.

Special education
April 28, 2009
This database contains enrollment, graduation, and budget information related to special education in all of the state’s school districts.