Looking for the Transparency Dividend in Minnesota

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Minnesota State CapitolThis year has seen more attention than ever given to transparency – most focused on the White House and federal government.  That’s no surprise given the years of “rain-checked” reforms.  Change is needed at a fast pace and in more areas.  But the pressure to deliver extends beyond Washington DC.  State legislatures across the country are starting to reexamine their own data, transparency rules and regulations. Earlier this month, Minnesota legislative staff met with department heads, IT experts and non-profit leaders to discuss possible changes.

The state legislature in Minnesota finds itself in a challenging situation. Engaged citizenry who are clamoring for more access, more data and a better user interface for the legislature’s web site versus a state budget that has been cut down to the bone by massive state deficits as far as the eye can see.

Legislative staff see the need for additional transparency and real time data but are challenged to deliver with scarce financial resources on one hand and a deeply federated departmental system on the other.  Politicians are loathe to legislate unfunded mandates (or a funded one for that matter).

Let’s be clear though: if introducing data standards and increasing transparency costs government more in the long run – they’re doing it wrong.

Minnesota Legislators FisheyeDan McCreary, Semantic Solutions Architect at Syntactica in Minneapolis, attended the meeting with legislative staff.  McCreary estimates that “$100 million per year in Minnesota alone” could be saved if the legislature adopted “National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) standards for all statewide data exchanges.”  NIEM standards are developed jointly by the US Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.

Donna Roy, Chair of the NIEM National Priority Exchange Panel says the “[Minnesota] Department of Public Safety anticipates saving over $10 million over a three-year period by using the XML Data Model rather than developing its own statewide standard for information systems.”  That’s just one change in one department!  If state legislatures can save money by sharing information between departments they can definitely find the money to share that information with the public.

State legislators need to start seeing transparency as improving service while cutting costs. Without the grassroots backing strong legislation, change will be slow or non-existent in Minnesota.

I’ll be diving deeper into the transparency movement in Minnesota in future posts.  Tell me about your challenges or success stories in getting data out of the legislature.  Comment below or reach me on Twitter @noahkunin.

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