Under state and federal law, the public has the right to inspect and have copies made of most information created by governments, in a timely fashion.
That may be what the laws say, but in reality that information isn’t always easy to get at. Officials often promise transparency, but fail to deliver on it in any meaningful way. It can still take legal action, or in the case of one MinnPost data request of Minneapolis Police, be longer than the gestation time of a human baby, before governments turn over information that, by law, is public.
So government transparency leaves much to be desired in Minnesota, even in 2017, when technology makes collecting and transmitting information easier than ever. Still, there are a few ways the government got marginally more transparent in 2017. Here are four of them.
1. The Minneapolis Police Department’s new policing dashboards
In recent months, the Minneapolis Police Department began making some data about how police officers do their jobs public, to a degree still rare among police departments.
Specifically, MPD’s released several new data dashboards that help researchers, residents and reporters better understand how officers do their jobs.
One dashboard includes information on where and why police stop citizens (and who they stop — it shows African-Americans and American Indians are stopped at a disproportionate rate, considering the share of the city’s population these groups make up).
Another dashboard shows information about incidents where Minneapolis police officers used force in the line of duty. It details the type of force used, demographic information about the people force was used against and action that prompted the force, among other things, showing that overall, the number of use-of-force incidents has declined in recent years. Other dashboards show information about officer-involved shootings, crime and arrests.
Dashboards don’t answer every question about policing in Minneapolis — they provide a birds-eye view of all the incidents, not a who/what/where rundown of each. But altogether the dashboards, which are updated daily, offer an unprecedented view of how cops in Minneapolis do their jobs.
Experts say the release of this data is a step toward transparency, but cautioned that it needs to serve a dual purpose: informing the public and informing the way cops do their jobs.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who took the reins of the department after Janeé Harteau resigned in July following the high-profile shooting of Justine Damond in South Minneapolis, said the data factor into decisions the department makes about things like training and discipline.
Asked whether more information would be coming out of the department, Arradondo told reporters in November, “We have held onto the people’s data for far too long in policing, and my goal is to continue to release as much of that as possible.”
2. The Minnesota Department of Health’s opioid dashboard
Opioids killed nearly 400 Minnesotans last year, marking yet another year of increased overdose deaths despite efforts to raise awareness and reverse the long-term death-toll trend.
In the hopes of coordinating efforts at curbing opioid abuse across the state, the Minnesota Department of Health built a web portal, launched in September, that makes public information about the opioid epidemic available online in one spot.
This dashboard shows how many people died from overdoses of different types of opioid drugs, data on non-fatal overdoses, treatment admissions, hospital treatments and drugs dispensed by type.
The hope is that health care professionals, pharmacists, state and county public health officials, social service providers, law enforcement, poison control, advocates and the public can use the data to better understand patterns of deaths, overdoses, use, misuse and prescribing practices, and use the information to improve treatment and apply for grants.
“Launching a new data dashboard will consolidate our tracking efforts into one place and help us better work together to help Minnesotans learn about prevention and treatment options, and to avoid the trap of drug abuse,” Minnesota Department of Health then- Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said in a statement when the dashboard was released.
3. Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board website overhaul
If ever there was a government website in need of an overhaul, it was probably the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board’s, the website where state-level information about campaign fundraising, political action committees and lobbying is made public.
The old website looked like it was from 1997.
This year, the CFPDB formally launched its new website, which, with improved search function, makes finding information about money in politics much easier for Minnesotans.
The old website was difficult to navigate, making it sometimes difficult to quickly analyze which independent expenditure groups were spending money in which races.
Now, you can pull up a candidate or independent expenditure group, easily filter by donors, candidates or groups, and add terms to narrow the scope of the search. You can even download the data.
This is a nice improvement, though it doesn’t change the fact that Minnesota has a relatively weak campaign finance accountability system, Hamline University professor David Schultz told Minnesota Lawyer. Over the years, he said, CFPDB has lost power as the Legislature has failed to act on its recommendations, authorize enough funding and has actually reduced the board’s oversight abilities in statute. (And while we’re at it, why not also note that the Minnesota Legislature is exempt from the state’s Data Practices Act.)
It’s also important to note that the state CFPDB website doesn’t cover local election finance, the record keeping for which varies by locality and can be very hard to systematically analyze. Even in Hennepin County, the most populous county in the state, campaign finance data is trapped in PDFs, which can’t be easily loaded into software for analy†sis.
4. Public subsidy disclosures, now federally mandated for state and local governments
State and local governments spend a lot of money on economic development subsidies to try to bring businesses and other attractions within their borders — think U.S. Bank Stadium, the Destination Medical Center in Rochester and the Mall of America. Putting a finger on just how much taxpayer money is used for economic development subsidies is notoriously difficult, with different rules about reporting these types of things in different states.
But thanks to a new rule from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, governments are now required to disclose some information about subsidies in financial reports. Specifically, governments must disclose tax abatements, or agreements that lower the amount of taxes the governments can collect. The rule took effect in time for the information to be included on financial reports issued in 2017.
Because of this new disclosure rule (known as GASB statement 77), we can look up, say, St. Paul’s tax abatements and find that the city lists tax increment financing deals for 38 projects — Carlton Lofts, the Schmidt Brewery and the Cossetta’s among them — going back to 1999.
GASB statement 77 disclosures for St. Paul are available in the city’s annual financial report thanks to a new Governmental Accounting Standards Board rule.
Better luck next year?
So, those are four ways it became easier to know more about what’s going on in various layers of government over the past year. Obviously, we at MinnPost have ideas about how the government could become more transparent (faster fulfillments of data requests and no more PDF campaign finance reports, please, would be a good start).
So go forth, spend your holidays on an eggnog-fueled binge of public information. Become a better-informed voter, hold your public officials accountable, and pray for more government transparency next year.