Proponent of open government

McDermott: Feds closing the door to information

Patrice McDermott remembers when government information was freely available on the Web. Beginning about 1994 and up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal employees published thousands of documents on the Internet. Information that previously had been difficult to find suddenly was easy to get.

The mood then was "let a thousand flowers bloom," said McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. "People were independently putting a lot of stuff up. There was not a lot of oversight."

But lately, McDermott has seen the flowering of electronic access to government information begin to fade. It's one of several trends that worry her.

Another is that prospects for expanding e-government, which she said looked promising in the early days of the Bush administration, now appear diminished. Administration officials who favor more government secrecy in the wake of the terrorist attacks seem to have gained the upper hand, she said.

Since the attacks, online government information has been disappearing, and McDermott said that is a dangerous trend. "The greatest risk to the public is the notion that the government should withhold anything that might potentially be of use to terrorists," she said.

During the past nine months, executive branch officials have begun limiting access to government information by asserting that much of the data is sensitive security information, invoking a new and undefined category of information, McDermott said.

She is not opposed to agency officials reviewing information more carefully before releasing it, she said, or even withholding some information for a limited time period. But the recent trend among federal agencies of categorizing information as sensitive security information is alarming, she said.

"Once something is said to be sensitive security information, it falls into a black hole, and it never comes back out," she said.

As a lobbyist for open government, McDermott said she has no particular lobbying techniques that she finds universally effective, with perhaps one exception. "Shame," she said, laughing.

She also uses e-mail to keep others informed about agency policies and decisions that she finds laudable or deplorable. Several hundred people receive her Govinfo and Egov e-mail newsletters.

"I try not to editorialize because it's not a blog," she said. "I feel that if I editorialized about some of the things I have very strong opinions about — occasionally I'll sneak something in there — that it would limit the audience."

She started the e-mail newsletters when she was an information policy analyst at OMB Watch, an advocacy group interested in open government. She continued publishing them when she joined the library association.

Besides producing her newsletters, she will be busy on Capitol Hill promoting access to government information. She will be watching two bills dealing with government secrecy.

One is the Open Government Act, sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill would require federal agencies to create electronic databases for tracking the status of requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The other is a bill to repeal an executive order that President Bush issued in November 2001 that substantially undercut the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has said he will introduce such a bill this year.

McDermott's former colleagues at OMB Watch look to her to help them tackle issues such as government secrecy and initiate changes.

"I learned a lot from Patrice in four or five years of working with her, not just about the substance of information policy but also about how to be effective," said Rick Blum, director of the Freedom of Information Project at OMB Watch. "I learned a tremendous amount in hallway conversations."

An example of McDermott's effectiveness is the E-Government Act of 2002, Blum said. "She did an enormous amount of work behind the scenes to strengthen the E-Government Act," he said, especially Section 207, which requires federal agencies to categorize their electronic information using metadata to allow it to be easily searched and retrieved.

McDermott, too, is pleased with the E-Government Act and Section 207. But as is often the experience of policy-makers, she has watched agency officials implement the law in a manner that "is not quite the way we envisioned it," she said.

The Patrice McDermott file

Title: Deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations.

Work history: McDermott was a senior information policy analyst at OMB Watch for eight years before joining the library association. Before that, she worked at the National Archives and Records Administration as a life cycle coordinator. At NARA, she helped employees use standardized data elements to describe and catalog information.

Age: "Let's just say I'm a [baby] boomer."

Family: McDermott's husband, Glenn Harper, is editor of Sculpture Magazine. They have an elderly cat.

Activities: She and her husband enjoy reading police procedurals, a genre of fiction. "I'm also learning to play Irish fiddle — with the emphasis on learning. I've been at it a long time."

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