Study suggests a redo with links to the Web

A governmentwide project to create a "virtual card catalog" of federal information is not succeeding because agencies are confused about its purpose and have not received enough guidance on how to participate a study of the program concluded.

The study done by two university professors also found that the technical underpinnings of the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) need to take into account the rapid growth of the World Wide Web which was not foreseen four years ago when the concept for GILS was developed.

Charles McClure distinguished professor with Syracuse University and William Moen a faculty member at the University of North Texas recommended that the government launch GILS anew with an emphasis on providing links to federal information that is available electronically. That approach would give agencies a clear goal and allow them to meet the expectations that users have of being able to retrieve documents they locate online.

"Their recommendation to have future efforts with the GILS focus on the public dissemination of government information is I think right on the money " said Lewis Bellardo deputy archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration one of the study's sponsors. Bellardo said he agrees with the study's assessment that GILS should not be used by agencies for managing their records as the original plan for the system envisioned.

The report dated June 30 was formally published last week and is available on the Web (www-lan.unt.edu/slis/research/gilseval/titpag.htm).

Patrice McDermott an information policy analyst with OMB Watch and a GILS critic noted that many of the study's conclusions echoed a less detailed report her group published last winter. "There have been some hard lessons learned about oversight centralization and policy-making responsibilities " she said.

The legally mandated GILS was conceived as an online inventory of federal information from every agency. Agencies were to begin developing this index by describing the sources of information they produced including paper publications and computer systems.

But McClure and Moen found that guidelines issued by the Office of Management and Budget in 1994 telling agencies how to create this index (www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OMB/html/bulletins/95-01.html) did not describe clearly enough what agencies had to do to comply with the law.

In addition the report said agency officials and users interviewed for the study complained that OMB never followed up to ensure that agencies were making progress.

Left to their own devices the report said some agencies "produced a working GILS " while others made only a half-hearted attempt. Four agencies - the departments of Education Justice Transportation and Veterans Affairs - have not contributed anything to the index the report said.

"Without some level of governmentwide coordination we'll continue to see some successful agency GILS implementations " Moen said "but we don't think we'll move much closer to a governmentwide locator service."

OMB officials did not respond last week to requests for comment.

The study found that another problem with GILS has been that the technology that enables users to search multiple databases is not yet fully developed. To date users cannot search every agency GILS database with a single query although the report noted some potential solutions.

Moen said Web-based search software "makes it look easy " but the ubiquitous search engines are really searching a central database not the entire network. "You're not doing a search across the network you're searching a database at AltaVista " he said. "The complexity of doing distributed searching is what GILS has been struggling with."

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