Beware industry 'principles'
- By Patrice McDermott
- Nov 05, 2000
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
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.