Fed records for dummies
- By William Matthews
- Apr 24, 2000
Text of OMB Circular A-130
With a federal court ruling pending, the Office of Management and Budget
has written new rules telling federal agencies to do a better job of making
agency information — including electronic documents — available to the public.
The directive comes more than two years after the organization Public
Citizen sued seven federal agencies, including the White House, for failing
to provide the public with adequate access to public records, including
access through computers.
And OMB, which was one of the agencies sued, now appears to agree that
the government must do better.
In revisions to Circular A-130, a lengthy rule that governs the management
of information, OMB instructs agencies to provide the public with "a handbook"
that explains how to obtain information.
"The handbook should be in plain English and user-friendly," OMB writes.
And it should encourage people to access information electronically through
agency World Wide Web sites or through agency reading rooms — electronic
Each agency's handbook should describe the types of information the
agency retains, where to find agency reading rooms and Web pages, and how
to use computerized information locators to find information. Handbooks
should also tell people that they have a right to request information through
the Freedom of Information Act and explain how to make such requests, according
to OMB's A-130 revisions.
And although agencies are not required by law to make handbooks available
online, they should be as a matter of policy, and online handbooks should
contain electronic links to information when possible, according to the
Is this a kinder, gentler OMB?
No, said Michael Tankersley, the lawyer for Public Citizen who sued
OMB, the White House, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the departments
of Energy, Education, Justice and State in December 1997.
The provision for agency handbooks "only restates what was in prior
OMB memoranda," he said. And other parts of the A-130 revisions "don't do
anything except restate OMB's position and dig in its heels."
Tankersley argues that the federal Paperwork Reduction Act requires
agencies to produce a "complete and current inventory" of their information
systems. Such an inventory could help people discover what information agencies
have and where they keep it.
But OMB insists that agencies need to provide an inventory only of
their "major" information systems, and it lets agencies decide what is
Another problem is that OMB is better at pronouncing policies than enforcing
them, Tankersley said. "No one is policing what the agencies do. OMB issues
memoranda but does not follow up" to ensure compliance, he said.
The revisions to Circular A-130 are intended to bring the information
management rules into compliance with several laws aimed at electronic information
systems: the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, the Information Technology
Management Reform Act and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.
EFOIA and GPEA, in particular, address public access to government
OMB is trying to do the right thing, said Renny DiPentima, president
of SRA Federal Systems and a former deputy commissioner for systems at the
Social Security Administration. "As an ex-government official in IT, I think
the government is really focusing on service to the citizens. It's more
open, and it's making information more readily available. I think the revisions
to A-130 are being issued in that spirit," he said.
Timothy Sprehe, a former OMB official who was principal author of the
original 1985 Circular A-130, said that the revisions instruct agencies
to develop IT architectures, but they fail to include "information dissemination
functions" as part of the architectures. That's a significant oversight,
said Sprehe, who now runs a consulting firm. "Where do Web pages fit in?"
In its lawsuit, Public Citizen charged that agencies routinely violate
federal laws requiring information to be provided to the public on matters
ranging from military contracts to trade policies to law enforcement records.
Since 1995, for example, federal agencies have been required to compile
a complete inventory of their information resources but have not done so.
Since 1996, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act has required agencies
to produce an index of their major information and record locator systems
with instructions on how to obtain information.
But many agencies, including OMB, have ignored those requirements, according
to Public Citizen.
Laws intended to make searching for government records easier have not
worked, Tankersley said. "You still have to be an expert to find what you're
looking for," he said. Agencies use widely varying methods for cataloging
records, and there is no useful device for searching across different agency
databases, he said.
Information on a military operation, for example, might be kept in files
by the Defense Department, the State Department or various intelligence
agencies, Tankersley said. But there is no reliable way to tell which agencies
might have them or where.
A system called the Government Information Locator Service was supposed
to do that, but it has never been fully developed, Tankersley said.
"It's an orphan. A lot of agencies do not contribute to it, and it is
not kept up-to-date," he said.
The proposed A-130 revisions are still subject to change, according
to OMB. The agency will accept comments on them until May 19.