Panel backs GILS for data sharing

A study produced for an intergovernmental group last month backed a controversial online indexing system as the best available solution for coordinating government information and federal, state and local services.

The study suggested that the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) could provide a road map for agencies trying to overcome obstacles to sharing information.

The report, "Eliminating Legal and Policy Barriers to Interoperable Government Systems," concluded that obstacles to seamlessly accessing and moving information are not technical. Rather, problems with intergovernmental cooperation largely have to do with agencies being able to find data produced by others, knowing what format it is in and verifying its accuracy.

Ohio State University produced the report for the federally funded Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel (IEP), a group of federal, state and local officials. The congressionally mandated GILS is an online index of government information. Though developed largely by federal officials, many agencies have abandoned or ignored the requirement because they think it is too complicated to follow. But the study suggests GILS might address the problem of interoperability by presenting standard ways of describing the information each agency owns and how to access it.

"Interoperability means information sharing," said David Landsbergen, an associate professor with Ohio State's School of Public Policy and Management. Landsbergen, who co-wrote the study for the IEP, presented his findings at a panel meeting last month.

Costis Toregas, the IEP's local government co-chairman, said it is "abundantly clear" that having a standard for indexing documents would "increase the chances" of agencies being able to share data, although he declined to comment on whether GILS is the right solution. As a general principle, he said, "it's very difficult for agencies outside the federal government to jump in and support a standard if they had no hand in creating it."

Federal, state and local agencies share information routinely, but these relationships tend to form along programmatic lines. As agencies have looked for ways to increase efficiency, they have tried to bridge bureaucratic barriers, such as allowing welfare applicants to fill out one form to receive benefits from various agencies instead of filling out a form for each agency. However, officials do not want to use information collected outside their own agencies if they cannot vouch for its accuracy.

Because GILS offers details about the source, content and availability of the data it describes, Landsbergen thinks it could help. He said more agencies might participate if they had better information about how to use GILS. He suggested the IEP should be a repository for information on GILS and interoperability.

Patrice McDermott, information policy analyst with OMB Watch and a critic of how the government has handled GILS, said the idea could "breathe new life" into the program. If GILS could work, it may "force [the Office of Management and Budget] and the executive branch in general to think about what it takes to make [GILS] easier for agencies to utilize."

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