Editorial: Don’t scale back public access to data
School District 833 administrators recently bent the ears of local legislators, asking them to consider making changes to education law in the upcoming legislative session.
Most of the requests seem well-reasoned and worthy of further discussion — from how standardized tests are given to how certain funding is used.
One of the district’s suggested changes, however, should advance no further than the brief discussion held earlier this month.
South Washington County Schools suggested that the Minnesota Data Practices Act be changed to require that data requests be of “general interest” to the public in order to be fulfilled by a school district or, essentially, any other public body or agency that falls under the Data Practices Act.
If that sounds like a bunch of legalese, consider it this way: The district is suggesting a rather significant change to a state law that for decades has guaranteed that even seemingly obscure elements of government data remain open to the public. The district’s proposal is a broad-brush approach that could scale back access to information and should not receive legislative consideration. (The fact that none of the three legislators present — Sens. Katie Sieben and Susan Kent and Rep. JoAnn Ward — endorsed the measure is a good sign.)
The Data Practices Act spells out in great detail myriad types of information available to the public. Want to know about government employee salaries, school budget details or health data? How about tax and property records, crime statistics or public transportation ridership data? In most cases that’s all available to anybody under the Data Practices Act.
Of course, data requested by the public (or media) must be prepared by a government employee — in order to fulfill someone’s request for access. That apparently is the rub for District 833. Superintendent Keith Jacobus said the district believes it practices transparency but some public data requests create an extensive workload for the employee or employees who must compile the data.
So the solution offered is to potentially restrict access to data? That’s certainly not in the public’s best interest. Also, consider the challenge of defining what information would be of “general interest to the public.”
There is a delicate balance surrounding this issue. On the one hand, the public is entitled to all public information kept by District 833 or any other public entity. On the other hand, voluminous requests can overwhelm a school district and tie up workers who have other job responsibilities beyond responding to data requests.
The law already addresses that balance. It provides considerable flexibility in the response time public agencies have to fulfill requests.
Unfettered access to public information is vital to democracy, even if it’s messy, complex and inconvenient. Frivolous data requests should be avoided, but so too should any effort to constrict the public’s access to information.
Let the sun continue to shine on public information.