Minn. agency’s plan to delete emails after a year stirs criticism from open records advocates

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Human Services plans to delete emails more than a year old starting next month unless its employees decide the messages contain official government records.

The change raises concern among advocates for government transparency and public records who worry it could dramatically limit the public’s understanding of the inner workings of the huge agency, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

The newspaper said the new policy also underscores how state and local agencies often don’t treat emails as official records.

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“Lawmakers talk a lot about transparency, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority,” said Don Gemberling, of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. “If we really care, as we say we do, about how things happen in government and the way they happen, then we can’t figure that out without access to email.”

Minnesota government officials acknowledge there is no uniform retention policy for email at state agencies. Asked about the change, the Department of Human Services said in a statement that it was “primarily intended to help improve the agency’s data protection protocols and ensure that sensitive data are safeguarded.”

The automatic email deletion policy will make it easier to manage inboxes that could otherwise be clogged with information, including private data, the statement said. Instead, official records will be kept in secure locations, including records subject to legal action, audit, data requests and grievances.

Rich Neumeister, a citizen activist who closely follows state open records and privacy laws, noted that state agencies are already required to protect private data. Neumeister questioned the true motivation for wanting to delete email so quickly.

“Electronic communications and documents tell you things. How you get to a policy is one of them. How you respond is another,” Neumeister said. “It is important for the public to know. If there is no communication trail, that says things, too.”

Republican Rep. Jim Nash, of Waconia, who has a background in data storage and cybersecurity, questioned the change and said data storage is “dirt cheap” and that files can easily be encrypted and stored offline.

Minnesota’s public records law says government data is presumed to be public unless there’s a law that makes it private.

Under the new email rules, Department of Human Services employees must identify and categorize official records contained within email messages. Items in an employee’s inbox, sent folder and calendar will be automatically erased after a year. Other things, such as email drafts or those sent to trash, will be deleted forever after 30 days.

“It’s hard to get people excited and engaged about this, but it is important stuff,” said Democratic Sen. John Marty, of Roseville.