Watchdog group warns GILS' days are numbered

A program mandated by Congress almost four years ago to provide online indexes of government information to the public is losing steam, putting its future in question, according to a new report by the consumer watchdog group OMB Watch.

According to the report, the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) is being neglected by many agencies, and the Office of Management and Budget is not doing enough to keep the program alive. While it concluded that GILS is not a complete failure, the report said "the time may soon be at hand when some fundamental decisions are going to have to be made about the future'' of the service.

OMB Watch planned to issue the final version of the report Aug. 14, but posted a draft on its World Wide Web site several days earlier. The group has annually reviewed agencies' progress in establishing GILS and each time found it lacking. This time, the group criticized agencies for not keeping their indexes up to date.

"You have no way of knowing whether the information is reliable,'' said Patrice McDermott, an information policy analyst with the group who prepared the report. Out of 46 agencies that told OMB Watch how often they update their GILS files, 28 had not yet done so this year and about a dozen had not added new information since before 1997.

But Eliot Christian, a U.S. Geological Survey computer scientist who helped found GILS, said one reason federal agencies may be lagging is that they have put more effort into publishing documents on the Web. So much information is available online, he said, that it "has removed all the public clamor for information access. There being no fire, people [in government who are] mostly reacting to crisis say there's no crisis here.''

Meanwhile, the government is developing new software, called Advanced Search Facility, that will make it easier for agencies to index their electronic information for GILS, Christian said. The software, which is expected to become available this fall both commercially and as freeware, is essentially a Web crawler but one that also can index references to "non-Web'' material that is formatted as a GILS record. The software also would allow agencies to edit those records.

OMB Watch said the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Defense, Labor and Interior, have done the best job with GILS so far by providing either good links to information or good descriptions of how GILS works. In addition, the group said, the Government Printing Office, with its links to 36 agency GILS databases and a search engine through the GPO Access site, is an emerging "one-stop'' source for data.

Although more than four dozen agencies have made some contribution to GILS, the report said 33 agencies have not published any indexes, including the departments of Justice and Transportation. Justice and DOT officials were unable to provide any more information about their GILS systems.

The group blamed inattention by OMB for the lack of progress and recommended the agency issue new guidance for complying with GILS. After OMB's GILS policy expired last year, officials issued a memorandum reminding agencies that they still have to contribute to GILS, but the group said this was inadequate.

OMB did not respond to a request for comment.


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