Group says feds ignoring electronic information law

For Russell Powell, the freedom of information officer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, putting together a World Wide Web site to comply with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act has not been easy.

The act, which Congress passed in 1996, required agencies to provide by November 1997 online information about how to file Freedom of Information Act requests, copies of policy decisions, frequently requested materials, descriptions of agency information systems and other document locators.

But following the act is easier said than done. "One of the real issues...is, how do we maintain our Web site for the public to locate records,'' Powell said. "We have big plans to go to an all-electronic records management system. There's some question as to how...we make that friendly for the general public to come in and find things.''

Powell's dilemma is common, according to a report issued last week by OMB Watch, an interest group that advocates broader public access to government information. After examining 135 government Web sites, the group concluded that agencies' compliance with EFOIA was "overwhelmingly inadequate," though many, including the NRC, had devised "exemplary'' ways to carry out some aspects of the law.

The study, "A Report on the Implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996,'' indicated that no agency has completely complied with the statute, and 23 percent of agencies had "no EFOIA presence.'' In many cases, the report said, agencies may technically have fulfilled the law's requirements, but their Web sites were so disorganized that researchers could not find the information they wanted.

Patrice McDermott, information policy analyst with OMB Watch, said it was "astonishing'' how many agencies were not complying with the law, though this was not completely their fault. "They've gotten very little guidance from [the Office of Management and Budget] and no extra money to do it," she said. "A lot of them were not really clear on what [information] they had.''

The report said OMB should tell agencies more specifically what they should put on their Web sites and that agencies that were not complying with the law should be sanctioned, though it did not suggest how. OMB officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The law said agencies had to provide online "reading rooms'' containing indexes of their information systems and other sources of records, copies of major policy and legal documents, links to frequently requested materials and a handbook for how to obtain information.

The NRC "went beyond the call of duty'' organizing its Web page, the report said. A link to FOIA information from the agency's home page (www.nrc.gov) leads to lists of recently requested materials, which, the report said, informs individuals about documents they may not have known existed.

Powell said the lists are edited versions of a tracking report he keeps on his computer to manage his office's workload. Setting up the site meant working with the NRC Webmaster. "Some of it was links to things that were up already; some were things I already had or were simple to create. And I've also had a couple of my people...sent to HTML training," he said.

The report said, however, that the agency had not provided data about its information systems or offered handbooks for obtaining information and copies of its legal opinions. Powell said an index of NRC's information systems is available through its Government Information Locator Service site. This complies with OMB guidelines for EFOIA compliance.

As for the other information, Powell said, "no single person knows...all the kinds of documents...we have. You have to try to inform your agency [and] rely on them to do what is required.''

The OMB Watch report did not list which agencies were complying with the law and which were not. "Presenting the results in this manner seems more like a finger-pointing exercise than a valuable discussion of the success and failures of implementation," the report stated.

While some agencies not in compliance "had some positive elements of electronic dissemination," others that complied "did so in only the most minimal manner," making these distinctions "useful only for providing an overall picture."

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