Vendor Evaluation Reports Online

May 20, 2009 | No Comments

Many times web access is a vast improvement over paper sitting on shelves – not only for sheer accessibility, but in terms of how the information can be used. The Department of Administration has just released one of those vast improvements to a report that was mandated by the Legislature several years ago. Minnesota Statutes 16C.08, subd. 4(c), requires that upon completion of a contract over $50,000, agencies submit a one-page report, summarizing the purpose of the contract, stating the amount spent on the contract, and including a written performance evaluation of the work done under the contract. Previously, those reports were available only in print, in the Library, in the binders shown in the image to the left. Now it is possible to learn of agencies’ experiences with various vendors by searching online. Reports since March 1, 2009, have been posted, will be updated weekly, and can be searched by agency or vendor name. This is great progress.

Robbie LaFleur (originally published on the Legislative Reference Library website)

Freedom of Information Coalition Summit

May 15, 2009 | No Comments

Freedom of Information Coalition Summit
June 5-6
Minneapolis Marriott City Center

Friday at noon, we begin the conference with a luncheon and the ever-popular FOI Salon, followed that afternoon by two panels on Coalition Sustainability.

Saturday, we’ll have panels on FOI & Infrastructure, Financial Transparency, and FOI as Civic Education. At Saturday’s luncheon, for our keynote address we’re proud to present Paul Anger, vice president and editor of the Detroit Free Press.

For further information:
http://www.nfoic.org/2009-summit-schedule

** added update – students can now attend for free (if they forego lunch)

Wrong…not correct… A line-by-line review

May 13, 2009 | No Comments

See the posting below for Don Gemberling’s thoughts on the recently-released report, Accessing Government: How difficult is it? Comments on specific lines and sections can be found in this annotated copy. His comments are astute, even if his handwriting is sometimes cryptic!

Accessing Government: A copy with Don’s Comments

Robbie LaFleur

“The Public’s Right to Know”

Apr 27, 2009 | No Comments

An editorial today in the Minnesota Daily (the student newspaper at the U of M) describes two data practices-related bills in play at the Legislature. It closes with “At a public university, the thirst for knowledge and information ought not to be squelched for lust of money. It is imperative that Minnesota lawmakers land on the side of transparency on both bills, which would dangerously close the channels of public information if passed.” (More information on the “Tubby Smith” bill at the Star Tribune, “Legislators Debate Tubby Smith Act: Data vs Privacy.”)

Midwest Democracy Network’s Report Has Serious Problems

Apr 1, 2009 | No Comments

The Midwest Democracy Center’s recent report, Accessing Government: How difficult is it?, reflects what happens when you only look at a statute in trying to figure out what it does and particularly why it does what it does. Even with a statute based analysis, there are numerous mistakes in their description of what the statute says and does.

I also found it very strange that the authors spend quite a bit of time talking about the rules implementing the Data Practices Act. As the primary author of those rules, I take no great pleasure from that because the authors seem to believe that the rules were authored by the legislature. This is just one detailed example of why this report is bad and misleading.

The complexity of the Data Practices Act stems from three significant and primary legislative policy judgements.

First, the legislature decided that it would reserve to itself the authority to make all the decisions about whether data should or should not be public. It also decided those decision would be done in detail. This position on who classifies data was strongly urged on the legislature by the media community. People like John Finnegan, the former editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, were desperately trying to avoid having the courts make decisions based on a broad exemption system such as the federal FOIA.

Second, the legislature decided that our Act would also be a fair information practices and privacy statute. The latter being primarily a function of detailed decisions about what government data ought not be public. This adds a level of complexity to the DPA that is unlike other states and their foi statutes. However, it also gives to Minnesota citizens rights concerning access to data, limits on the data they provide to government and challenges to data that are not available in most other states in this country. For this reason, Minnesota has always received high rankings for the quality of its fair information practices protections.

Lastly, the legislature also retained to itself the authority to decide, at a detail level, issues of access to and dissemination of not public data. This adds to complexity because agencies and local governments must seek specific legislative enactments when they want to use and disseminate data.

In summary, when you strip out all of the detailed language in our DPA that deals with classifications of and use and dissemination of not public data, you are left with a statute that is not physically or conceptually any larger than most foi statutes. However, in other foi statutes, you must look to case law to see what the courts have said about detailed classifications of data as public or not public. On balance, when you add in the case law, you will find other states have the same level of complexity and physical size.

As Rich Neumeister, the 2008 Finnegan Award Winner, has said a number of times this past week, the Minnesota system is better because decisions about what should or should not be public have to be made in public and not behind the closed doors of a judge’s chambers. This is the very result John Finnegan and the rest of the media were trying to attain in the 1970’s.
However, there is a real problem with the process of the legislature making all decisions about closing data as that process currently operates. Simply put, there is little or no coverage of hearings by the media. At last week’s, Senate Subcommittee hearing there were lots of interesting issues discussed and debated. However to the best of my knowledge there were NO reporters in the room.

Be very careful with this report. I am going through this report line by line to identify detailed errors. The report makes recommendations about possible reforms to the Data Practices Act that I either do not understand or that miss the point. They did correctly identify that enforcement of the DPA is a problem. Suffice it to say, there have been recommendations by at least three study groups that Minnesota should establish a state office or commission whose primary job would be to work on issues of compliance. And, by such an office, I do not mean the current version of IPAD which is coming primarily a fee for service consulting shop for state agencies and which no longer appears to have a citizen centric perspective on information issues. However, there has not, so far, been the will in legislature to create, and more importantly, to properly fund such an office.

Don Gemberling, Secretary, MNCOGI Board

Opening Doors: Finding the Keys to Open Government

Mar 28, 2009 | No Comments

Check out OpenTheGovernment.org’s webcast; it presents a great opportunity for the public to be involved in the crafting of this directive. During the webcast, individuals who are intimately involved in formulating the administration’s policies and agendas will explain the initiative’s goals, receive feedback from the audience, and let members of the public know how they can continue to participate in the discussion.

The debut of TAP MN

Mar 28, 2009 | No Comments

Eagle-eyed Todd Kruse brings this to our attention. The Minnesota Management & Budget Office launched its long-awaited web site to track state spending: the Transparency and Accountability Project for Minnesota (TAP MN) . TAP MN can also be used to track Minnesota’s use of federal stimulus dollars. State agencies and the public can request spending reports by agency, fund, category or vendor. Look for updates often. It will be interesting to compare this to the federal version of this database, www.usaspending.gov/.

Helen Burke, MNCOGI Chair

Sunshine Week & Finnegan Award in the News

Mar 25, 2009 | No Comments

Now that the week is over it’s fun to take a look at the coverage we got – and are getting:

Newspapers provide broadest access to government records – Jim Pumarlo wrote a nice article for the Minnesota Newspaper Association

Jim Neumeister was interviewed on Midday (Minnesota Public Radio)

Rich Neumeister, recipient of the 2009 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, will be interviewed on this week’s Almanac: At the Capitol, with Mary Lahammer. Air times are Wednesday, March 25 at 10:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 26, at 4:00 a.m. on Channel 2. Channel 17 will air the program on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday at 2:00 a.m, 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m.

Sunshine Week Recap

Mar 23, 2009 | No Comments

Sunshine Week generated a number of events and lively exchanges, including some local disagreement about a national survey of state government information available online. That survey engendered a March 15 Star Tribune article by Liz Riggs of AP headlined “Survey:65 percent of Minnesota government records online.”

Not so fast, responds Charlie Quimby on the Growth & Justice blog. Quimby notes that the headline is misleading “since the sponsors certainly did not measure all types of records, and 100 percent of all records would hardly be a desirable goal.”

It’s an interesting exchange, emphasizing that, though accessible information is only one aspect of “developing a culture of fiscal discipline and accountability”, it’s an aspects worthy of public attention.

The Top Ten Most Wanted Government Documents

Mar 22, 2009 | No Comments

The Center for Democracy and Technology recently released a report on the most wanted federal documents. Here’s a list of the Top Ten Most Wanted Government Documents from the report.

  1. Public Access to All Congressional Research Service Reports
  2. Information About the Use of TARP and Bailout Funds
  3. Open and Accessible Federal Court Documents Through the PACER System
  4. Current Contractor Projects
  5. Court Settlements Involving Federal Agencies
  6. Access to Comprehensive Information About Legislation and Congressional
    Actions via THOMAS or Public Access to Legislative Information Service
  7. Online Access to Electronic Campaign Disclosures
  8. Daily Schedules of the President and Cabinet Officials
  9. Personal Financial Disclosures from Policymakers Across Government
  10. State Medicaid Plans and Waivers