Beware industry 'principles'

If you have not felt the slaps, you will soon. The challenges — issued for

the most part by industry associations — over the appropriate role of government

in the age of e-government have begun in earnest.

The challenge that has received the most media attention so far is a

study commissioned by the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

As coverage of the issue has noted, this study lays out "principles for

government provision of goods and services" and applies those principles

to the digital environment.

What the media have not noted, however, is that those "principles" are

the same ones the information (and now transaction) industries have been

arguing for since the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. And they are the

ones that were largely enshrined in the Reagan administration's Circular


Those principles basically state that, where potential profit or protection

of a niche market is concerned, the government should abdicate anything

to the private sector except access to raw data.

They are the same principles that were dethroned by the Clinton administration's

own circular, which states: "Agencies shall use electronic media and formats,

including public networks, as appropriate and within budgetary constraints,

in order to make government information more easily accessible and useful

to the public."

So the players are beginning to jockey for position, prompted by the

upcoming administration change and the reauthorization of the Paperwork

Reduction Act.

According to a recent Hart-Teeter poll, respondents said greater government

accountability was the most significant benefit that e-government could

confer. That response was almost three times that of those favoring convenient

services. The second priority is greater public access to information — which is, of course, essential for greater government accountability.

What can be inferred from those results is that the public wants to

be able to find and use government information in order to understand how

government is meeting its responsibilities.

There is, less publicized so far, a separate but related set of principles

being put forward that deal with what is sometimes called "respectful reuse"

of information collected by the government as part of its statutory obligations.

Apparently, it is minimally acceptable for government to collect this

information — Congress, after all, directed agencies to do so — but government

should get permission from the industries before agencies reuse it by, say,

making it available online or making it useful by allowing the public to

compare and combine it with other data. Why? Industries say the data may

not be accurate. And whose fault would that be?

There are serious questions that need to be addressed about the quality

of information submitted to the government. And serious discussions need

to take place about government initiatives that might stifle innovation

in the private sector. The answers, however, are far from pre-determined.

McDermott is an information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government

watchdog group in Washington, D.C.


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