Report: UMN should bolster public record production unit, training

The University could ask the legislature to amend the state’s open records law.

Hailee Schievelbein

Hailee Schievelbein

by Dylan Anderson

The University of Minnesota could be better at producing public records when requested and has outlined ways to improve how it turns over records to the public, a new report says.

The Data Practices Review was triggered after the University admitted to the mishandling of email disclosures, the Star Tribune reported in July. The review, conducted by the University’s general counsel, shows a steep increase in data requests in recent years, both from media outlets and the public.

The report, dated Oct.1, outlines what the University is already doing to better its public records production and suggests other improvements such as ensuring staff are more knowledgeable about records responsibilities. The University could also look to lobby the Minnesota Legislature to amend the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the state law governing public records. 

Since the 2009 fiscal year, formal data requests to the University have increased by almost 300 percent. In the 2009 fiscal year it received 214 requests. Last fiscal year it was 830.

Between April and September of 2019, the Minnesota Daily submitted 76 requests, the most of any media organization over that time.

It took on average about 85 days for the University to close a request in the 2017 fiscal year. That was reduced to about 40 days for the most recent fiscal year. 

For requests since July 1 of this year, that is down to about 15 days.

In an emailed statement, President Joan Gabel said the report offered a “thoughtful and thorough analysis” about how the University handles public records requests.

“I am confident this review and the actions that result will help us to improve, while also further strengthening practices that are already working well in line with our overall commitment to transparency and accountability,” Gabel said in the statement.

One of the report’s recommendations is to approach the state to potentially amend current law to “provide some protection for public institutions from undue burden.”

The records law includes limits on what type of information the University is required to produce, though it does not allow a request to be denied because production of specific records would be strenuous.

“I see this as problematic because who decides when a request is either frivolous or burdensome?” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media law at the University’s journalism school.

Kirtley questioned what leads to these requests being burdensome: Is it the lack of systems in place to produce records responsively? Is it a lack of expertise when handling requests? Is it because requests are too broad?

The report acknowledges all three as potential roadblocks.

While some information is maintained centrally, requests often require individual departments or units to produce records. In some cases, there may be few individuals with access to the information, causing delays. 

The report also outlines a need to better train University employees on their legal duties when it comes to producing records in their control.

Broad requests are difficult for the University to fulfill as they could require a slew of information not clearly defined. When requesters are unfamiliar with the structure of the University, they may struggle to know how to request the information they desire.

Compounding this, the report says that getting clarification is sometimes difficult, as requesters may be slow to respond when asked for clarification.

Email requests are particularly challenging as they are often complicated, having several keywords that turn up information unrelated to the request. When these requests are made, employees have to search their own email accounts to produce data. The reports says this can lead to information that is beyond the scope of the request and “it becomes a tedious task to remove all nonresponsive material.”

In some cases, the University will have the Office of Information Technology go into an employee’s email account and retrieve requested emails, but often it is the staff member’s responsibility to comb through their emails.

Regent Michael Hsu said he thinks it is problematic to have staff search their own emails when they are the subject of a request, as it is up to their discretion of what is relevant to the request. 

Hsu speculated that if there were an important email someone didn’t want to get out, they could just not turn it in. He would rather have the Office of Information Technology retrieve employee emails.

While the University could lobby the state to change the law, Hsu said he does not think that a request being difficult to produce is enough to deny a record.

“Obviously it’s tough,” Hsu said. “But I think that to say we’re not going to not fulfill something because it is too burdensome, it’s very subjective.”

Joe Kelly contributed to this report.