What’s the holdup for Minnesota’s database?

Posted by: on May 17, 2008 | No Comments

Todd Kruse’s crusade to have the sun shine in on Minnesota state government spending got some ink in a 5/16 Star Tribune editorial, “A blogger’s quest: Where’s the database?” Kruse seeks to have the Minnesota Department of Administration fully implement last year’s State Government and Omnibus Act. To comply with the 2007 Act, the state needs to create a database to track spending on contracts and grants.

Kruse is not alone in his quest. The National Taxpayer’s Union is one of several groups tracking similar developments on the state level on its site, www.showmethespending.com. Good for Todd Kruse and the National Taxpayer’s Union for their diligence in pursuing transparency in government.

What’s the holdup for Minnesota’s database? It’s not lack of software; it’s readily available. The Minnesota Department of Administration estimates the cost at $1 to $1.5 million, and cites lack of dedicated funding. The cost of such a database is not as high as the Department antidicpates. The federal government implemented software that tracked spending for ~$200K last year – a fraction of the state’s estimate.

Here’s the evolution of the database tracking software. In 2006, OMB Watch devised fedspending.org. In 2007, the federal government found it to be so compelling that it adopted it as its own. And so, usaspending.gov was born. The same software the feds use is – and has been – available to Minnesota. The mandate from the legislature is almost a year old. Only the data appears to be lacking. Could 2008 be the year MN gets its database to track its own spending?

Helen Burke, hburke@hclib.org

MN COGI on Minnpost

Posted by: on Apr 25, 2008 | No Comments

Earlier this week a post on this MnCOGI blog responded to a thoughtful post in Minnpost written by a unique team that included Marcia Avner, public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Dane Smith president of the Growth & Justice think tank; and Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Theirs was an impassioned rejection of the proverbial slash and burn “no new taxes” fallacy and a call for people of good will to get a grip on the public good. Mine was a reminder that those people depend on a transparent government and access to timely, accurate, reliable information by and about their government — from the feds down to the local township and school system. Thanks to Susan Albright, MinnPost published that response today.

The good news — a virtual sheaf of emails this afternoon affirms that lots of Minnesotans and MinnPost readers depend on and care deeply about the issue.

The goal of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI) is to shed light on the reality that a solid base of information is the absolute sine qua non of a democracy. The pillars that support that base are threatened by a host of forces — the arrogance of government behind closed doors, concentration of media, instant dissemination of misinformation, classroom focus on testing over critical thinking skills. Add your bete noir to the Litany of Threats..

Hope lies in collaboration among those who shape the conversations and the decision-making mores of the public — teachers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, librarians, researchers, lawyers, religious leaders, these and countless other people of good will who seek the truth, speak the truth, and help others to understand and ultimately shape a decent, caring, informed, even wise electorate that lessens fear and embraces freedom.

Minnesota needs to invest in and nourish the common good

Posted by: on Apr 23, 2008 | No Comments

Today’s MinnPost (4-22-08) carries a noteworthy commentary by a quartet of community leaders who, with a common voice, remind us that Minnesotans and our leaders “need to invest smartly in education, job training, transportation and human capital. To do this we need to think again, as the generation before us did, as well-rounded citizens willing to invest in and nourish the common good.

The vocal foursome includes Marcia Avner, public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Brian Rusche, executive director of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, Dane Smith president of the Growth & Justice think tank; and Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. When these folks speak in unison, it behooves one to listen.

What is implicit in their comments is a base of common knowledge shared by those “well-rounded citizens willing to invest in and nourish the common good.”

In this information age that base of common knowledge is at terrible risk. Today Rupert Murdock picked up another NYC newspaper while his managing editor tendered his resignation at the WSJ. Today the mainstream print media in the Twin Cities languish as owners sacrifice journalistic standards to stockholders’ fiscal demands. Today our community’s professional journalists work in tandem with citizen journalists to cover, interpret, and share with a changing public a range of news and views and understandings of a world – and neighborhoods – in flux. Today those outside the digital loop resort to the only sources of information they can afford – a mix of radio and TV owned and ruled by a dwindling circle who know only too well the power of information.

The life-giving force of this community of well-rounded citizens committed to the common good is the free flow of reliable, timely, relevant information — cogent analysis of the decision-making process, accurate data on the impact of public policy and the living conditions of Minnesotans, serious research on the goods and products that build a robust economy, a communal eye on the flow of power and money and influence.

Minnesotans care about transparency in government, access to information and the threats. The commitment to understand and nourish the common good demands individual and collective time and mental energy. These four leaders remind us of another essential nutrient of the common good: “As citizens, we need to make room for elected leaders to do what many of them know to be right for Minnesota.”

Information blossoms as knowledge and ideas that exist to be shared and invested. Something to ponder as we celebrate statehood and honor our heritage of “well rounded Minnesotans willing to invest in and nourish the common good”.

Notes on the Newseum

Posted by: on Apr 12, 2008 | No Comments

Not that I was invited or anything but I’m still celebrating vicariously the opening of the spectacular Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Our Nation’s Capital. It’s a fitting testimonial to our assumed commitment to the First Amendment as a fundamental upon which all else rests. I know the real estate cost a lot, but it’s a small price to pay if the suits actually peer out of their limos and think for even one split second about the principle.

The Newseum reminds us of the essential role of investigative journalism, a free press and transparency in government – and it does so from a vantage point smack between the White House and the Capitol with a first-hand view of a string of bureaucracies.

Print and electronic media – the traditional mainstream – are in chaos. And we the people know what we’re missing. Some 10,000+ of us showed up to visit the Museum on Day One. Read all about it in today’s Washington Post. Or you might want to know who WAS invited…

Minnesota News Council

Posted by: on Apr 11, 2008 | No Comments

A chance to learn makes a good day – and that was my day today. Recently I was named to the Minnesota News Council and today was orientation, a real learning experience for this “public” member of this 24 member advisory group, a newspaper reader among journalists, listening in on the conversation of professionals at their best.

The Minnesota News Council, created in 1970, is a nonprofit organization supported entirely by voluntary contributions from media organizations, businesses and individuals. The purposes of the MNC are to present complaints about accuracy and fairness to news organizations, to hold public hearings re. unresolved complaints, and to conduct public forums to foster trust in journalism.

Our orientation involved a mock hearing. The scenario offered this newbie a chance to see the group process at work and to listen in on the keen questions and observations of my new colleagues.

I need to learn more about news councils in other states. I know Minnesota’s is the oldest, but that’s about all I know now. I learned it’s modeled on a British prototype. In a litigious environment, when everyone waits to hear the “verdict”, it’s a unique forum for open dialogue sans finger pointing and financial settlements.

I find myself mulling it over in my mind — the process, the perspectives, the purpose of the Minnesota News Council. A first blush, it seems to me an altogether intelligent and constructive venue for giving the people a voice and the press a chance to engage in honest dialogue with their subjects and their readers. I’m eager to learn more and, in time, to plunk my own oar in the deliberative waters.

18 August to 27 August

Posted by: on Sep 10, 2007 | No Comments

PPD=St Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch
Strib=Star Tribune

PPD, 8/4/07, p. 1C: “Now who do I sue” is a story about possible lawsuits stemming from bridge collapse. It also includes discussion about a City of Mpls. lawsuit settlement that should have been public but was not.

Strib, 8/7/07, p. A1: “Buzz begins over the future of state transportation Comm’r” includes note about MnDOT taking the names and phone numbers (public data) of bridge inspectors off its website because of “possibly threatening calls”. (Emphasis added.)

PPD, 8/8/07, p. 1A: “As bridge aged, its rating improved inexplicably” includes following statement: “What prompted the [rating] increase is unclear . . . . ” Illustrates need for complete government data.

Strib, 8/9/07, p. B1; ‘Popular North Side police official demoted” includes statement by Chief Dolan that reasons were between him and Edwards. Thought this was public data.

Strib, 8/12/07, p. A14: “Out east, E-Z pass gives drivers a fast lane to divorce court” illustrates the unintended consequence of surveillance type electronic “convenience”.

PPD, 8/12/07, p. 6A: “Chinese city tracks its citizens” using a system being bankrolled by banks in the United States. (1984 meets Wall Street.)

PPD, 8/15/07, p. 7B: “Teen charged in 15 year old’s death” includes statement from sheriff that he is withholding the identity of the victim because “data practices issues”. (Names of victims of crimes are almost always public.)

Strib, 8/15/07, p. B5: “Body found near Backus was of girl, 15” contains same statement as above.

Strib, 8/16/07, p. A11: “Rumsfeld quit day before election” does not explain that his resignation letter was obtained using the federal FOIA (Freedom of Information Act.)

PPD, 8/16/07, p. 8A: In Iraq update story about Rumsfeld resignation letter, “The word Iraq doesn’t appear. . . .” it does explain letter obtained under FOIA.

PPD, 8/17/07, p. 6A: “FBI director’s notes detail meeting a ‘feeble’ Ashcroft” is based on government data. Similar story in 8/17 Strib.

4 August to 17 August

Posted by: on Sep 10, 2007 | No Comments

PPD, 8/4/07, p. 1C: “Now who do I sue” is a story about possible lawsuits stemming from bridge collapse. It also includes discussion about a City of Mpls. lawsuit settlement that should have been public but was not.

Strib, 8/7/07, p. A1: “Buzz begins over the future of state transportation Comm’r” includes note about MnDOT taking the names and phone numbers (public data) of bridge inspectors off its website because of “possibly threatening calls”. (Emphasis added.)

PPD, 8/8/07, p. 1A: “As bridge aged, its rating improved inexplicably” includes following statement:
“What prompted the [rating] increase is unclear . . . . ” Illustrates need for complete government data.

Strib, 8/9/07, p. B1; ‘Popular North Side police official demoted” includes statement by Chief Dolan that reasons were between him and Edwards. Thought this was public data.

Strib, 8/12/07, p. A14: “Out east, E-Z pass gives drivers a fast lane to divorce court” illustrates the unintended consequence of surveillance type electronic “convenience”.

PPD, 8/12/07, p. 6A: “Chinese city tracks its citizens” using a system being bankrolled by banks in the United States. (1984 meets Wall Street.)

PPD, 8/15/07, p. 7B: “Teen charged in 15 year old’s death” includes statement from sheriff that he is withholding the identity of the victim because “data practices issues”. (Names of victims of crimes are almost always public.)

Strib, 8/15/07, p. B5: “Body found near Backus was of girl, 15” contains same statement as above.

Strib, 8/16/07, p. A11: “Rumsfeld quite day before election” does not explain that his resignation letter was obtained using the federal FOIA.

PPD, 8/16/07, p. 8A: In Iraq update story about Rumsfeld resignation letter, “The word Iraq doesn’t appear. . . .” does explain letter obtained under FOIA.

PPD, 8/17/07, p. 6A: “FBI director’s notes detail meeting a ‘feeble’ Ashcroft” is based on government data. Similar story in 8/17 Strib.

July 27 to August 4 – Bridge Collaspe included

Posted by: on Aug 6, 2007 | No Comments

Strib=Star Tribune of Minneapolis PPD=St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch

Strib. 7/27, p. B1: “Pension case settled for 1% of losses” is a story based on government data.

Strib, 7/27, p. B1: “Three trucking firms falsified reports, official affidavits say” is a story based on government data.

PPD. 7/29, p. 9A: “Bush appointee blocked health report” is another instance of suppression of government information. (Similar story on in Strib. on 7/28.)

PPD, 7/31, p. 1B: “Prosecutors admit key evidence withheld” illustrates game playing with government data and inattention to retention policies. It also includes an incorrect interpretation of the Data Practices Act. (Similar story same day on p. B4 of Strib.)

PPD, 7/31, p.3B: “Medication errors cited in Veterans home report” is a story based on government data.

Strib, 7/31, p B1: “City report warned of times to be out of the sewer” is a story based on a government report.

PPD, 8/1, p.1A: “Key bridge in light rail plan can’t hold trains” is a story based on a draft report ob trained under the MGDPA.

PPD, 8/3, p. 1B: “High court upholds breath test challenge” illustrates the growth of difficult government information issues when you combine the government with technology and copyrighted computer code.

PPD, 8/4, p. 1C: “Now, who do I sue” is a discussion of the fallout from the bridge collapse. However, it also contains information about a secret settlement in a previous lawsuit.

Government Data News Summary July 17 to July 21

Posted by: on Jul 26, 2007 | No Comments

Strib = Star Tribune and PPD = St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch

Strib, 7/17, p. A10: In Nation and World section, story headlined “University President, two others forced out” is about what happened after these officials covered up a rape and murder in a dorm at Eastern Michigan University.
(Same/similar story on page 2A of 7/17 PPD.)
FULL TEXT HERE from www.startribune.com
MICHIGAN
University president, two others forced out
Three Eastern Michigan University administrators — President John Fallon, Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Vick and Public Safety Director Cindy Hall — lost their jobs at the 23,500-student university, months after they were accused of covering up the rape and slaying of a student. The school officials publicly ruled out foul play in the Dec. 15 death of Laura Dickinson, 22, despite evidence to the contrary. It was not until another student, Orange Taylor III, was arrested in February and charged with murder that Dickinson’s family and other students learned that she had been raped and killed. Taylor has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial Oct. 15.

Strib, 7/19, p. 1B: “Folks still flocking to Cities? Maybe not” is a story based on government data and disagreements between agencies about how to count migration.
http://www.startribune.com/462/story/1311416.html

PPD, 7/20, p. 1A: “Reported dog attacks on rise” is a story based on government data. Similar story in Strib on same day.

PPD, 7/21, p. 4B: “Couple exposes drug raid error” is a story about a drug raid gone awry. This story presents an interesting public data issue because the police agencies refuse to name the officers involved.
http://www.twincities.com/ci_6428965?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com&nclick_check=1

News Summary – July 4th to July 8th

Posted by: on Jul 12, 2007 | No Comments

Strib=Star Tribune PPD=St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch

Strib, 7/4, p A7. In “World and Nation” section, a story headlined “Michigan university breaks law in handling killing” describes a cover up of information about an on campus murder. The cover up violates a federal law that requires public reports of incidents of violence on campuses.

Strib, 7/4, p. A11. “She wrote a check, became a target” is a story about use of federal campaign contribution information to harass someone because they worked for a company that does testing using animals.

PPD, 7/4, p. 3A. “Private contractors outnumber troops in Iraq” is based on government data.

Strib, 7/5, p. A3. “Contractors exceed troop level in Iraq” is the Strib version of the story noted above.

Strib, 7/5, p. A8. “Passport crisis diverts diplomats” is based on government data.

PPD, 7/5, p. 1B. “Background checks for volunteers will be free” describes another creative use of government data, i.e. checking up on the backgrounds of school dance chaperones and other volunteers.

PPD, 7/8, p. 1A. “From dreams to desolation” is a story based on government data.