Group sues feds for nondisclosure

So even federal agencies including the Office of Management and Budget are violating laws that require them to disclose information about their major computer systems according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court. Public Citizen a consumer advocacy group has asked Judge Stanley S. Harris to order the seven agencies to provide indexes and descriptions of their most significant information systems as demanded by the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act and the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA). Congress included the requirement in the laws to help the public locate information about federal programs.

"The electronic FOIA requirement is very specific in terms of a special mandate that the agency actually prepare something that serves as a reference guide for requesters " said Michael Tankersley senior staff attorney with the group. "What became clear to us was a large number of the agencies aren't taking it that seriously."

Some of the agencies named in the suit - OMB the White House Office of Administration the U.S. Trade Representative and the departments of Education Energy Justice and State - do offer public access to at least some of their systems. For example OMB describes its legislative regulatory and budget-tracking systems on its World Wide Web site and DOJ has included a list of its "newer and more significant" systems in the FOIA reference guide on its Web site.

The agencies named in the suit may not be the only ones that have failed to comply with the law but they were chosen Tankersley said because Public Citizen often requests information from them or knows they have computer systems they do not advertise to the public. He said the group also wants to make a point by targeting agencies "that are supposed to be exercising leadership in this area and aren't."

The case is the latest in a series filed in the past few years that is designed to force agencies to take stock of their computerized records and the way they disseminate them to the public.

"The prevailing message is that government does have the responsibility of getting information together in an active manner " said Gary Bass the executive director of OMB Watch a federal watchdog group. William Moen an assistant professor at the University of North Texas School of Library and Information Services said the failure of many agencies to maintain inventories of their systems is "a long-standing issue" that pre-dates both laws. He said the paperwork law which established an online directory of federal information called the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) was intended to motivate agencies to comply with existing government policies requiring such inventories of systems.

But some agencies balked at the resources needed to catalog their systems. Moen also said OMB did not provide clear guidelines for how to translate these inventories into data that would be useful to the public.

A study of GILS published earlier this year that Moen co-authored with Syracuse University professor Charles McClure also said OMB's guidelines on E-FOIA did not describe precisely enough how agencies could use their GILS systems to help them comply with the newer law.

Eliot Christian chief of the data and information management staff at the U.S. Geological Survey and the main creator of GILS said "the major incentive" for agencies to create inventories of their systems "has to come from the outside." He was not familiar with the lawsuit but he noted that "agencies that already have active pressure groups" have responded best to mandates to make systems and data more accessible. DOJ which defends all agencies in lawsuits against the government has until early February to respond to the complaint. A DOJ spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit saying that the agency's policy is not to discuss pending cases.

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