GILS possible if tied to agency Web sites

A recently issued report (www.unt.edu/slis/research/gilseval/titpag.htm) on the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) portrays a very unevenly implemented locator service - excellent in a few agencies and barely a token effort in others.

The authors William Moen of the University of North Texas and Charles McClure of Syracuse University argue for refocusing GILS toward its primary goal of helping users find government information and for dropping nonstarter features such as the linkage with records management.

I was a paid consultant to the GILS evaluation which means I am more opinionated on the subject than the typical individual. It also means I actually talked with lots of the agency people who had to make GILS work down in the trenches. Here is my view of what should be done with GILS in the future.

First of all GILS will not go away quietly largely because it is enshrined in the 1995 revisions to the Paperwork Reduction Act. So the task is one of not ignoring GILS but of making new and better sense of the program.

Second GILS will not succeed unless it is intimately tied to something the GILS-producing agencies view as truly useful to their own agendas. If not GILS becomes nothing but a burden that agencies will shrug off the minute the Office of Management and Budget eases the pressure to produce the service.

What has been wildly successful in recent years is the universal mania for agency Internet home pages and World Wide Web sites. Every agency indeed every sub-unit and program of every agency believes it must have its own Web site. No money has been appropriated specifically for this purpose but the agencies have been so enthusiastic about proliferating Web sites that they have scrounged the dollars from their existing and shrinking funding bases. To be successful GILS must infuse itself into Web site design.

The GILS folks have done a pretty good job of defining data elements both mandatory and optional that a GILS record should cover. No need for each Webmaster to reinvent the contents each time a new home page is created. The basic who what when and where that you need to find information is all there in GILS.

The Cure

My first prescription for the future of GILS then is that GILS data elements should become the universal content standard for agency home pages.

Right now it's a bewildering experience to try to find a specific piece of information on most federal agency home pages. It sounds ridiculous but unless you know the URL for the information in advance you probably won't find it.

A few agencies have understood this and have integrated GILS with their home pages. At the Environmental Protection Agency for example you can visit its home page start looking for information and end up in the agency GILS without ever knowing it. The EPA's GILS is seamless and invisible to the user. What a revolutionary idea!

For reasons only a bureaucrat could fathom most agencies have GILS as a separate hyperlink unrelated to anything else on their Web sites. Who decreed this benighted conception of an information locator service? In large part agency Web sites are information locator services so why aren't they married to GILS?

My second prescription for the future is that GILS should harness itself to the one-stop-shopping movement in Web sites. The notion that GILS must be organized at the agency level rather than by subject matter is a victory for the bureaucratic mentality over common sense. Dilbert take note.

Let GILS energize all those interagency committees councils and working groups to create cross-cutting Web sites that organize knowledge by subject instead of by agency the way actual humans search it out. We have the encouraging example of federal statisticians at www.fedstats.gov Commonly Requested Services at www.WhiteHouse.gov and a few others.

Aristotle said there were four elements: earth air fire and water. Is it too much to ask of the government's 21st century technologists that we have a Web site to point us to everything the feds know about earth? About air? About fire and water?

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. Washington D.C. He can be reached via e-mail at jtsprehe@intr.net.

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