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."

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group