The Minnesota Data Practices Act: A tool to keep power in check


Over the past several months I have done a number of data practices requests involving government entities. Those requests vary from law enforcement agencies and use of their databases to school districts and their relationships with private consultants. I have relearned again from doing those requests and speaking with a number of people from the public to media it can sometimes be a chore to get access to public data.

Why is that?

One reason that stands out to me is the initial skepticism that government has in complying with the law when a person requests to inspect public data. When a person asks for public data such as budget information or a report it can be made immediately available or you may be asked a number of questions like who are you, why do you want the data, and what are you going to do with it.

Another reason could be just the attitude of an individual or a number of individuals. For example, I asked a local agency for public data that could raise issues and public discussion about appropriateness and accountability of an action of the agency. In the process of getting the public data their data practices person told me–“It can be like pulling teeth around here to get info.”

Depending on what you ask for it may be immediate, days or even weeks until you get the data. Some government agencies do not comply with the law that says public data should be in a “condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use.”

In a conversation I had with an employee who is responsible for data practice compliance, she stated there is no money to train government employees or to teach them how to comply with the law. She also stated that data practices are the lowest of priorities in many agencies. Ironic is it not, if law enforcement agencies only did some basic training and education they could have saved hundreds of thousands dollars of taxpayers $$$ with the Minnesota DVS database scandal.

Even though some agencies may not comply with the law, the majority try to do so. This is evident by the news media reports that have been published or aired on such stories as the St Paul Police crime lab problems or the license plate scanners that are collecting millions of records on law abiding people in Minnesota and my own experience.

I have used data practices requests many times to find out how government acts and operates, but also what agencies may be planning for the public and if they are complying with the laws of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is and can be an effective tool to check on the awesome power of the government. It takes persistence though by the person making the request for data sometimes because the government in some situations is not in a hurry to give you the government data that would embarrass it and make the public ask questions.