Federal Web sites should be more like these

Recently, the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch released a list of the "10 Most Wanted" government documents. The initiative was a response to the failure of many federal agencies to place government information online, where it would be readily accessible to members of the public, who have already paid for it with their tax dollars.

With input from federal agencies and Congress, we wanted to demonstrate how this failure affects the daily lives of Americans by limiting their access to specific categories of vital information. We concluded that the best way to capture the scale and scope of the problem was to ask the public to identify information that was missing in action. The public's response surpassed our expectations. We winnowed down the responses to the "10 Most Wanted," and we have launched an effort to encourage agencies to get these documents online.

But we also found that there was some good news. We received comments praising the efforts of several federal agencies that do a good job of making information available online. Thus, we decided to also highlight the work of five agencies that are expanding the public's right to know. While no agency is perfect, these agencies provide models and examples of the innovative methods the Internet offers to promote public access to information.

As may be expected, the "Five Agencies on the Right Track" received much less public recognition than the "10 Most Wanted." But let's give credit where credit is due. Here is the CDT/OMB Watch list of five of the most impressive federal World Wide Web sites:

1. FedStats (www.fedstats.gov): The Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy maintains this site of statistics collected by more than 70 federal agencies. The site's information resources are vast and easy to use. It provides a model for interagency collaboration and for placing dense technical data online in a format that promotes meaningful access and use by the public.

2. Thomas (thomas.loc.gov): Perhaps the most famous of all federal Web sites, Thomas enables users to search through a wealth of information about congressional activity, including pending bills, enacted laws, the Congressional Record, committee reports and other materials. While many daily users wish it were more quickly updated, and while it does not include committee votes, amendments and other useful material, it is a reliable and highly used source of information.

3. NASA (www.nasa.gov): At last check, NASA was the busiest government Web site, with good reason—the site is innovative and well-designed, containing engaging and educational resources.

4. The Federal Judiciary (www.uscourts.gov): While many courts complain that making opinions available online is too difficult and expensive, a select few have proved them wrong by creating excellent Web sites. For example, the 5th, 7th, 11th, D.C. and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal all have reliable Web sites. A smaller percentage of district (trial level) courts, including the Southern District of Indiana and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, have sites that allow visitors to use various search tools to locate information.

5. GPO Access (www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs): When we were not sure if particular information was online, this was the first place that we looked. GPO Access provides a central point of access to information from all branches of government and has committed to providing permanent public access to the information on its servers. In addition to providing a valuable resource of government information on the Web, the Government Printing Office continues to prod other agencies to place their information online. GPO Access may be the best-kept secret on the Web—the government should do more to inform the public that it exists.

Our Top Five list was far from complete. For example, in recent years three sites have revolutionized government information and its value to the public: The Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval) Database (www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm), which gives even small investors access to information that was once only available from the companies themselves or by travelling to the SEC in Washington, D.C.; the House Science Committee (www.house.gov/science), which was the first congressional committee to Webcast and archive its hearings online; and the General Accounting Office (www.gao.gov), which provides all of its reports online for free, cutting the agency's paper costs by one-third.

All of these sites have one thing in common: The agencies that created them have instituted procedures that make public access to government information via the Web the rule rather than the exception and an integral part of the agency mission. It is time to create more sites that take advantage of the open, decentralized and plentiful nature of the Internet, thereby helping to fulfill the democratic promise of this new technology.

-- Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology.


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