Often I read articles and opinion pieces or watch news reports in which someone is complaining about the government’s lack of transparency. Examples include recent reported comments from Sen. Paul Gazelka and an opinion piece by Kevin Roche (“The models Gov. Walz used should be made public,” April 10). Both involved the failure of state government, at that point, to affirmatively provide detailed data about the models being used to predict the future course of the coronavirus and how to deal with it.
As someone with expertise in the reality of how government does or does not make information and data available to the public, I always want to say to the commentator or opinion giver: “The government, except in very limited instances, has no legal duty on its own to affirmatively make government data available to anyone.” That legal reality dictates, in part, a major reason for the rationale that is the foundation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
If and when government chooses not to affirmatively provide data to the public, the Data Practices Act says that we citizens have the right to request public data and the government then becomes legally obligated to provide it.
What I saw missing in both the stories about Gazelka and the opinion piece by Roche was any attempt on their part to request the data that provides the basis for the COVID-19 modeling. I see this often in situations in which complaints are made about government’s failure to provide data.
By not asking for the data to which we are entitled, we sacrifice our ability to learn what our government is doing.
Real transparency is more than waiting for the government to hand out data to us. Real transparency involves demanding data from the government and fighting, if necessary, to force the government to provide it.
The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, for which I am spokesperson, exists in large part to help the public understand their right to gain access to government data. We do this through education activities, recognizing those on the front line of data fights, working with the Legislature and sometimes litigating. These roles become even more critical in times like this in which much of government appears to want to carry out the public’s business with a scarcity of transparency and openness.
Don Gemberling is a retired state of Minnesota manager of data practices issues and a spokesperson for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.