Fed info locators must put public before data

OMB Watch, a public interest research group, recently issued a report showing that federal agencies' performance on the Government Information Locator Service is abominable and deplorable. Some major agencies still do not even have a GILS, and others have not updated their GILS entries in a year or more. The villain in the tale is the Office of Management and Budget, which has failed to provide the necessary leadership.

I think OMB Watch is asking the wrong questions and inspecting the wrong end of the horse. The purpose of GILS, after all, is to make government information easier to find. The question to ask is not whether agencies have religiously carried out GILS as though GILS were some magic talisman. The question to ask is whether agencies have made government information easier to find, with or without GILS.

A fundamental problem with GILS, as with its predecessor— the Federal Information Locator System— is that it is a legislated solution to a fundamental information problem: How do I find the government information I want?

GILS is only one possible approach because it attempts to take all the information agencies produce and organize it to make it easier to find. By organizing information that way, GILS helps the public find government information by taking the viewpoint of the information producer, the agency. In other words, GILS says to the public: Here are the answers the government provides; now, what is your question?

GILS is certainly one way to find information, but it's not the only way. Two other methods, which are very much in currency, take the viewpoint of the information user: frequently asked questions and one-stop shopping. The FAQs approach presents information to the seeker this way: Here are a bunch of questions others have asked about this topic; maybe your question is among them. The one-stop-shopping approach presents information this way: You are interested in "X;" here is everything the government knows about "X."

FAQs and one-stop shopping are just as valid and useful information-finding aids as GILS, and some combination of all three is probably ideal. Forget the fact that GILS is legislated under the Paperwork Reduction Act Amendments of 1995. All wisdom does not reside in laws passed by Congress.

OMB Watch, or some other public interest research group, could more usefully spend its time and money by asking whether government information is becoming easier to find. For example, it should ask: Is there more government information available to the public this year than last year? Are agencies making their key information resources readily available? Are they making it simple and straightforward to locate the information?

If the answers are yes, who cares about GILS implementation?

What I would like to see is an annual report that rates federal agency Internet sites for their ease of use, completeness and user-friendliness. If someone can point out that major information resources are not finding their way to an agency's World Wide Web site, the agency deserves to be knocked. If information resources are on an agency's Web page, but no one can find them unless they already know exactly where to look, give that agency the raspberry.

And for heaven's sake, will OMB Watch and the rest of the public interest research groups please get over the simple-minded notion that all problems and solutions lead to OMB leadership or the lack thereof? OMB is too convenient a whipping boy. The public does not have to wait for OMB to propose definitive resolutions for information-finding aids before matters improve. A little dose of well-directed public embarrassment for agencies that perform poorly is worth 10 times what any OMB directive can accomplish.

It is just possible that public access to government information is actually improving even while GILS is going down the tubes. Maybe agencies have moved beyond GILS— which is ultimately only a locator service and not the information itself— and are devoting more of their resources to mounting full-text copies of the actual information the public seeks. Perhaps in this age of exploding Internet resources it is much easier for those who seek government information to find it.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.


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