SET-ASIDES

Electronic FOIA demands A gencies would be obligated to release documents to the public in electronic format if requested and make newly created public documents available on-line or by some other digital means under recently enacted amendments to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996 sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Randy Tate (R-Wash.) also direct agencies to post on-line indexes to documents released under FOIA and provide commonly requested records in some electronic form. But how much information government agencies will end up providing digitally is likely to depend upon the extent to which agencies are maintaining their records that way.

Although agencies create many of their records using computer systems the new law places no requirements on agencies to preserve documents in computer-readable form or to convert existing paper records to electronic formats.

The Electronic FOIA law codifies recent court rulings that confirmed e-mail and other electronic documents are subject to release under the same rules that govern paper records.

Most of the law takes effect within a year including a provision that requires agencies to produce an index and descriptions of all their major information systems. Agencies would have three years to build electronic indexes to previously released records.

Senate mulls outsourcing

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee recently held a hearing on the proposed Freedom from Government Competition Act (S. 1724). Sponsoring Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) said the proposal would give private businesses a forum to protest agency decisions to perform work in house or to buy services from other government agencies.

He said services such as engineering laboratory testing and map making were examples of work that could be outsourced to save up to $9 billion a year. Thomas last month sponsored an amendment to the appropriations bill that would have required agencies to show that services they purchased from another agency could not be performed more cheaply and effectively by a private vendor. But the amendment was not included in the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress.

Both approaches drew criticism from the Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office mostly because they directed agencies to buy from private sources with only a few exceptions.But Bert Concklin president of the Professional Services Council portrayed the government's move away from outsourcing as "contrary to what is an appropriate federal role."

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