If all politics is local, policies, laws and regulations pertaining to state and local government information are hyperlocal. What matters to most citizens is the right to access to information by and about state, regional and local government information – state agencies, county boards, advisory committees and regulators, every entity from the Governor’s office to the local school board. A citizen who wants to know about a dump sight or a school bullying or a state agency budget doesn’t – and should not — have far to go.
The spirit, if not the letter, of the state statute that establishes state information policy is clear:
All government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by a government entity shall be public unless classified by state, or temporary classification pursuant in section 13.6 (Discoverability of non-public information), or federal law, as nonprofit or protected nonpublic, or with respect to data on individuals, as private or confidential. The responsible authority in every government entity shall keep records containing government data in such an arrangement and condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use. Photographic, photostatic, microphotographic, or microfilmed records shall be considered as accessible for convenient use regardless of the size of such records. Minnesota Statute 130.3 Access to government data: Subdivision 1. Public.
The twin pillars of access in Minnesota are the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law. Essential guides to each include these: Open Meeting Law, Government Data Practices Act. The Legislative Reference Library also offers a comprehensive list of guides and information about parallel laws and regulations in other states.
Still, in real life agencies have a way of setting their own procedures in light of the laws and regulations on the books. Concerned citizens need to be aware of the agencies’ responsibilities to assure compliance with the spirit and the letter of the law. In this day of rapidly changing technologies access can be determined by everything from the assumption that everyone has web access to outright bureaucratic resistance to officials’ failure to know either their responsibilities or the public’s right to know. Many local officials and state agency staff have had no orientation to the ways in which state access regulations relate to their work.
As the legislators unpack their laptops, there is talk among bureaucrats and advocacy groups of review and possible revision of state statutes relating to information practices. A draft prepared by the Information Policy Advisory Division, the state bureaucracy that deals with such matters, is generating blog reaction before it goes on stage.
Prognosticating what will happen during any legislative session is ill-advised; this season it is downright foolhardy. Still, open discussion of open government may shed light on the law, its implementation, the need for clarification, simplification or more stringent sanctions and ways to assure that Minnesotans know and exercise their information rights.
During the legislative session the place to go for information on the status of legislation relating to information policy and practice is the Bill Search and Status site fed diligently by overworked legislative staffers. In addition to the latest information on the status of individual bills the site provides excellent guides including “How to Follow a Bill” and “How a Bill Becomes a Law” as well as a handy look-up feature if you want to reach your member.