Hill, OMB debate putting info online

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"Online informants"

On one thing both sides agree: Over the past four years, the federal government

has made substantial progress toward making information available to the

public via the Internet.

But while Clinton administration officials revel in how far they have

come, public interest organizations fret about how much remains to be done.

To Joshua Gotbaum, acting deputy director of the Office of Management

and Budget, the progress is evident at www.fedstats.gov, a 3-year-old World

Wide Web site that provides federal statistics from all sorts of agencies,

and at www.fly.faa.gov, where a million viewers have logged on since April

3 to get up-to-the-minute information on weather-related flight delays at

40 major U.S. airports.

There is also www.healthfinder.gov, the Department of Health and Human

Services site that provided information on health topics and links to services

and support groups for 4.5 million people in 1999. Gotbaum points to Environmental

Protection Agency information on toxic chemicals and an extensive Medicare

information site as evidence of government progress online.

But others compare what is with the vision of what might be.

"While agencies are moving quickly to provide more information online,

much of it remains unorganized and difficult to find," said Patrice McDermott,

an information policy analyst for the advocacy organization OMB Watch.

Gotbaum and McDermott were among a half-dozen witnesses who appeared

before the House Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee June

14 to discuss electronic access to government information.

Everyone agrees on the principle that "democracy requires an informed

citizenry," Gotbaum said. The question is whether the federal government

is complying with laws requiring that government information generally be

readily available to the public, he said.

Among the key laws governing the availability of electronic information

are the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments of 1996. Their

aim was twofold, said Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee.

They were intended to give citizens better electronic access to information

generated by government agencies and, by getting agencies to put more information

online, they aimed to reduce an enormous backlog of public requests for

information through the Freedom of Information Act.

The amendments required agencies to create "electronic reading rooms"

that would provide easy access to agency information and frequently requested

documents. They also ordered agencies to create online indexes to make information

easier to find and to publish a handbook explaining how citizens can get

electronic documents.

Four years later, there is "variation in agency practice," Gotbaum said.

But for most agencies, "compliance is both the goal and the norm," he said.

Horn is less satisfied with agency performance. The EFOIA amendments

"unfortunately, have not been as successful as intended," he said.

"Some agencies do not know what the law requires," Horn said. Not only

have some failed to place their most requested documents online, some have

shut down electronic reading rooms and removed handbooks and public documents

from their Web sites, he said.

Overall, "government performance is overwhelmingly inadequate," McDermott

said. "Agencies have not made this a priority and until they do, the full

promise of the Digital Age to increase government transparency and accountability

cannot be realized."

And OMB, which is responsible for providing agencies with guidance on

meeting EFOIA requirements, "has done nothing since 1997 to aid agencies

in fulfilling their requirements," McDermott said.

When offered an opportunity to respond to McDermott's claims, Gotbaum

declined but told Horn he would respond in writing.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom

of the Press, took a middle position in the debate, pointing both to government's

achievements and shortcomings.

"Almost every agency now has a Web site that can be visited by the public,"

and agency freedom of information officials have identified some government

databases that would be useful to the public and made them available online,

according to Dalglish.

Dalglish, a lawyer who represents news reporters, said "government Web

sites are getting more and more sophisticated and, as a result, easier to

use and more useful." But they could be better, she added.

Agencies are most likely to use their Web sites to promote their activities

instead of making the data that they collect useful and available to the

public, she said.

Often, agencies do not index information well enough to be searched

effectively. In addition, agencies often display information in Portable

Document Format, which makes it "largely useless" to researchers who want

"raw data" that they can analyze for themselves, Dalglish said.

For example, Justice Department uniform crime statistics are not made

available in a format that permits meaningful comparisons between communities.

The Internal Revenue Service does not post enough information to compare

how much money a county sends the federal government with how much it receives

in return. And although the Small Business Administration possesses data

on loans to communities, it does not make the data available on its Web

site, she said.

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