Using the DPA

How to use the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act

The Data Practices Act (DPA) is Chapter 13 of the Minnesota state statutes. It applies to all local and state government entities, except: the state legislature, the state court system, and townships outside the Twin Cities metro area. 

In addition to city, county and state government agencies, the law applies to public school systems, both K-12 and higher education. Corporations and nonprofit social service agencies under contract with a government entity are subject to the law. Although the legislature itself is exempt, individual legislators are subject to certain provisions governing elected officials and candidates for office.

The law allows anyone to ask for government data, which might be documents or spreadsheets, video, audio or some other format. The format doesn’t matter, as long as it is something that has already been created and is in possession of the government entity. The law can’t be used for simply getting answers to questions.

Whether the particular data you are requesting is public (or “not public”) is then dictated by the law. It is the government entity’s responsibility to cite the specific statute or federal law – and provide this in writing – that deems the data to be “not public.”

Agencies are not required to create new data. In other words, if something is not already created as a document, dataset, spreadsheet, etc., they are not required by law to make it. For example, let’s say you ask a city police department for summarized data identifying the number of gun violence incidents that occurred in each neighborhood. They might have data on each individual incident, but maybe not a spreadsheet that counts them up by neighborhood. The agency might be kind enough to provide this for you, but they can refuse since the law doesn’t require it.

Your rights:

  • Right to inspect public data at reasonable times and places at no cost
  • Right to get copies of public data upon request. (You may be charged money.)
  • Right to be informed of the meaning of public data.
  • Right to get access without telling who you are or why you want to access the data.
  • Right to be told the state statute or federal law that prevents access.

Government’s responsibilities: 

  • Maintain public records in a way that is easily accessible.
  • Receive and comply with requests in an appropriate and prompt manner.
  • May only charge the actual and reasonable costs of searching and retrieving data and providing copies.
  • If data is maintained in electronic format and that is what requestor asks for, agency should provide it in that format.

Useful links regarding the DPA:
Minnesota Data Practices Office
Data Practices Overview, a document created by the MN House of Representatives research office in 2010.

How to file a good public records request

Wondering how to start? Here’s an example of a boilerplate DPA request letter.

A little homework and a well-written request letter can go a long way to reduce or eliminate problems in getting the data you want. The videos below provide tips on how to do both.

Other states & federal government

Information about public records laws in other states is nicely summarized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Federal government agencies are governed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).