One of the cornerstones of democracy in our state has a name guaranteed to drop your eyelids to half-mast.
The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act needs a new title. Desperately.
It is the law that forces bureaucrats to show us what they’re doing by making the vast majority of their records open to everyone. It also makes them protect the privacy of personal information that you hand over to the government, and it requires them to show you all the records they have collected about you.
It is the reason the police cannot arrest and jail someone in secret. It is the reason you know how much public employees are paid. It’s the reason your city can’t hide how much it’s spending on sports arenas and legal settlements and decorative water fountains.
So who cares what it’s called?
Because open, accountable government is under siege. If we want to fight the forces of secrecy, we have to defend those institutions that keep our leaders operating in public view. That’s hard to do if those institutions have names at least seven intellectual steps removed from what they actually do.
Across the St. Croix River you’ll find the Wisconsin Open Records Law. Florida has a Sunshine Law. The one adopted by Congress 50 years ago has the most grandiose name of all: the Freedom of Information Act.
Would you go to the mat to preserve your freedom of information? I think so. Now try organizing a mass rally for data practices.
Back in 2014, the Legislature set up a Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Privacy. I’ve heard some people call it the data privacy commission for short. It sure doesn’t sound like a check on excessive secrecy, which was a big part of why it was created.
Changing a name isn’t a substitute for real reform. The Legislature still needs to bring its own members under a public records law. It needs to require police departments to reveal what surveillance technology they’re deploying. It needs to end the mass destruction of e-mails and other public records by government officials. It needs to remove the secrecy from investigations of botched care and patient harm by nursing homes and HMOs. And it needs to create a real appeals process with power over agencies that drag their feet or stonewall when people ask for public information.
I can’t say I’m confident that will happen. These days at the Capitol, the few voices advocating for transparency are drowned out by dozens of lobbyists, many of whom are paid with public money. They spout every argument possible to keep information confidential. Some of those points make sense. Others are so absurd I would call them data malpractices.
Renaming this law is not the same as taking the name of a slavery defender off a Minneapolis lake. The Data Practices Act served the state well for decades and reflects Minnesota’s admirable belief that we’re all policy wonks at heart.
But the time has come for the Minnesota Freedom of Information Act. Let the sun shine in.
On a personal note: This is the final Full Disclosure column. Later in January, I will move into a new position at the Star Tribune, as an editor overseeing reporters who cover local politics and government in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I’ll still tweet about transparency (follow me at @jameselishiffer), and you can still contact me with your ideas on how we should cover the issue.
To my readers over the past 3 ½ years, thank you for the feedback, story ideas and personal stories you’ve sent me, as well as the photo of the stone with a strong resemblance to the head of a space alien.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.