(AP) - When it comes to online access to state government records in Minnesota, the state is, well, slightly above average.
A survey by journalists and others found that 65 percent of the records checked were available online, compared to the national average of about 60 percent.
The survey looked for 20 different records, ranging from nursing home inspections to teacher certifications to school bus inspections.
The survey was undertaken as part of Sunshine Week, an annual effort by journalism organizations to promote open government and freedom of information.
While Minnesota law doesn't require public records to be available online, advocates for openness in government say it's important for citizens who may have difficulty going to see them in the offices where they are kept.
"It's a lot more expensive, a lot more time-consuming for the requester," said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media law and ethics at the University of Minnesota. "The least that can be done is to make those records that are available digitally accessible."
School building inspections are one type of record not available online. Doug Neville, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said low demand is a likely reason. He said the information is available and can be faxed or e-mailed to anyone who requests it.
"If we were to take everything we do and put it online, it would be harder to find that information," Neville said.
Agencies under the DPS umbrella do post records including school bus inspection data, which was looked at in the report. Crash reports, public criminal history records and missing person files are also available, spokeswoman Susan Lasley said.
“The least that can be done is to make those records that are available digitally accessible.”Jane Kirtley, U of M media law professor
Steve Elkins, the state registrar, also cited low demand in explaining why death records aren't available on the Web. He said they can be searched at public viewing stations around the state.
Both Neville and Elkins said their agencies are redesigning their Web sites and they expect it to be easier in the future to post material.
"I have, in my mind, a long-term plan to put death records online," Elkins said.
Minnesota Management and Budget, which comprises several state financial service divisions, is predicting it will soon have an online database of state expenditures - another category examined as part of the report that was not online.
Such a database has been contemplated for years. Spokesman Curt Yoakum said MMB may release something within the month.
"It's going to take a little while to get all of the components," Yoakum said. "Not everything will be there on day one, but it will be pretty comprehensive."
Some agencies say getting more data online comes with a cost - and that at a time when Minnesota is contending with a budget deficit in the billions.
Legislation introduced this session would require the Minnesota Attorney General's Office to maintain a consumer complaint database that's easily accessible to the public.
The legislation as currently written doesn't explicitly say the database would be online. Spokesman Ben Wogsland says the office estimates eight to 10 employees would be needed to create and maintain the proposed database.
"Currently, we don't have the resources in our budget to do that," he said. "Any new proposals that are going to require significantly more work are going to require additional resources."
Kirtley, the University of Minnesota professor, argued that putting public records online could actually reduce the workload of state agencies by cutting down the number of requests an agency has to process. She said that's been the case at the federal level.
"Investment in the infrastructure to make these improvements will pay off in the future," she said.
Rich Neumeister of St. Paul has lobbied frequently at the Capitol on privacy and open government issues. He said he thinks "this online push is great" as long as citizens retain the right to see records in their original format.
"The government is in control of what they want to put online," he said. "They're not putting out any information that they're going to get negative feedback on," he said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)