Thursday, October 25, 2012

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.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

John R Finnegan, Champion of Open Government, Thank You

When I first started appearing at the Capitol in the late seventies I heard the name of John R Finnegan as being in the forefront in the battle for open government.  I was aware of who he was because I read the Pioneer Press/Dispatch.  But I did not meet him until some time in the early eighties in his upstairs wood paneled office in the paper's building off 4th Street.

I think it was over some issue with the St. Paul Port Authority wanting to make government data secret.  I felt intimidated to meet this man who I heard a lot about as being the giant in the good fight for open government.  As I entered his office with a tie on he very much put me at ease.  He was that kind of man.

Up until recent months I would call him for a few minute chat letting him know about what's happening on some data practices/open meeting issues.  Asked what he thought.  Mr. Finnegan had an impact on me with his directness, but also with his view that what is good for the news media is also good for the public in regards to public access, no double standards.

I collected a great number of John R Finnegan's columns which he did on data practices and open meeting laws.  They are great primers why we need open, transparent, and accountable government.

One column I dug out of my files was about an issue referred to by Don Gemberling in the Pioneer Press story about Mr. Finnegan's passing.  The issue is Senate File 873 introduced by Senator William McCutcheon in 1979.  Mr. Finnegan described it as the "Secret Police and Closed Government Act."  It was also had some powerful co authors, Sen Merriam and Sen Tennessen.

The bill if had become law would have severely limited the public data that is now accessible to the public today. The legislation stated that data in law enforcement agencies shall be available in the public interest, but on the other hand there was discretion power the same agency could have decided  to keep it from the public.

The bill was killed.  One major reason why,  Mr. Finnegan was there and able in plain language to let the public know through "The Editor's Notebook", the name of his column, what was happening.  He did this hundreds of times using the pen and paper.

In 2009, I was given the John R. Finnegan Award for my efforts over the years on information policy issues at the Legislature.  I was surprised at getting the award, but as I stated in a column in the Pioneer Press :

"I will get an award named after John Finnegan.  As I reflect on his legacy of open government and an informed public, goals that I, too, have aspired to, I'm honored."

Thank you, Mr. Finnegan.