Fed records for dummies

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

and real.

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

directive.

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

"major."

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

information.

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?"

he asked.

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.

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