GPO: Feds not coordinating electronic info

The federal government does not plan or coordinate the massive amounts of electronic information it disseminates to the public, according to a federally commissioned study released late last month.

The Government Printing Office, which commissioned the report, concluded that there is an "overall lack of government information policy guiding electronic publishing, dissemination, permanent public access or information life-cycle management, especially as information policy relates to agency missions."

Westat, a Rockville, Md.-based consulting firm, conducted the study by examining 314 federal information products at 24 agencies across all three branches of government. GPO commissioned the survey for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS).

"In many cases, [electronic information] is just vanishing into the ether," said Andy Sherman, a spokesman for GPO. "We have a policy here with our Web site: What goes up, stays up."

According to the report, most agencies did not understand the issue of permanent access. "Most agency representatives said their agencies had not discussed the issue [of permanent public access to documents] or were exploring the issue to see how it should be addressed, and they indicated that they did not understand the concept of permanent public access in relation to permanent retention," the report states.

Kurt Molholm, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center, said his agency faces a few problems in managing the documents it posts on its World Wide Web site, such as a lack of storage. To guarantee public access to all its documents, DTIC maintains on its Web site a list of citations for older documents that may not be available on its site anymore. Users can still request the documents from DTIC.Molholm also said the agency has a problem maintaining the reliability of documents the public accesses and "[keeping] people from altering [them]."

Sherman said the report does not indicate what agencies plan to do with electronic dissemination. "I think when they were asked to evaluate their future plans, things got a little more cloudy than they are now," he said.

John Okay, former deputy commissioner of the Federal Technology Service and now a private consultant on government information technology, said the lack of coordination among agencies' dissemination of electronic information—including within an agency—stems from three developments in recent years: a push within the Clinton administration to tighten budgets and to "reinvent" government; a growing public acceptance of the Internet; and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which made it easier for more federal workers to buy software and hardware for distributing electronic information via Web pages.

Okay said the atmosphere that has emerged has allowed agencies to innovate when it comes to creating Web pages and other electronic information products, such as CD-ROMs. "It created a laissez-faire atmosphere in the government," said Okay, who added that the current environment enables agency offices to create innovative Web pages and products that can offer efficiency to government and better service to citizens. "On balance, I'm thinking it's more of a good thing than a bad thing. The question is, 'What do we do?' "

The report promises to be only a first step in assessing agencies' electronic information efforts. "As a follow-up effort, NCLIS indicated that they will use these findings as a point of departure and analyze them in greater depth," the report states. "It is expected that this follow-up effort will result in broad conclusions and recommendations to the president and Congress about how the problems and challenges revealed in this study can be constructively addressed to improve current and future public access to electronic government information."

Okay said to coordinate federal electronic information, the federal government should consider developing guidelines and best practices for distributing information. "I strongly believe they should not mandate standards," he said. "I think the genie is out of the bottle."

But the lack of standards may threaten GPO's responsibility to pull together electronic documents from other agencies and make them available through the Federal Depository Library Program, which involves about 1,350 libraries nationwide.

A goal of the program is to make federal documents in print or electronic form permanently available to the public. But as many agencies create new documents and as they move toward making electronic versions of their documents, including bulletins for the agriculture industry or handbooks on cultural landmarks, the focus on permanent access may be neglected.

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