Giving public data its due

Stakeholders both praised and criticized a presidential commission's proposal

to overhaul the way government maintains information and disseminates it

to the public.

The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science heard public

comment last week on a draft report and related draft legislation. NCLIS

hopes the legislation will ensure public information stays permanently

accessible in the Information Age.

Although the Internet has hel-p-ed make government information widely

available, access to that information is a long way from being convenient

and cost effective to everyone, according to NCLIS.

As a result, the commission has proposed to overhaul the data dissemination

process. The proposed changes, discussed in detail for the first time publicly

at the Dec. 4 forum, would create an independent organization called the

Public Information Resources Administration that would oversee how agencies

disseminate public information.

PIRA also would serve as the focal point for establishing government

information as a strategic national asset. Certain functions of the Government

Printing Office and the Commerce Department's National Technical Information

Service would be rolled into PIRA, as would FirstGov.gov.

Other proposed actions:

* Create two offices to help the judicial and legislative branches manage

their public information responsibilities.

* Revamp the Federal Depository Library Program.

* Establish a federal Webmaster.

* Build a single electronic public information resources database.

* Foster cooperation between PIRA and the National Archives and Records

Administration to enable agencies to provide one copy of a document for

permanent records and public access.

"Every day in this Electronic Age, we are losing essential government

information that is irreplaceable," said Nancy Kranich, president

of the American Library Association.

Others agreed. "We believe that the [report's] findings and conclusions

are pretty much on target," said Susan Tarr, executive director of the

Federal Library and Information Center Committee, which provides guidance

to federal libraries. Agencies should take more responsibility for indexing

their information to help the agencies, such as GPO and NTIS, that disseminate

documents, she said.

Many disagree on how to enact such changes. Benjamin Cooper, senior

vice president for the Printing Industries of America, which represents

printing and graphic organizations, said dividing GPO's responsibilities

among three main agencies would be inefficient. "There is no guarantee that

simply moving the function to another branch of government would necessarily

improve the process," he said.

J. Timothy Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates,

said none of the expert panels NCLIS turned to for advice recommended the

establishment of a new agency.

"My view is that that recommendation is politically naive and foolish,"

he said, adding that he thinks the proposed changes will be a hard sell

in Congress.

F. Woody Horton, a consultant with NCLIS, said the proposed changes

represent bold thinking. "Nobody pays attention to little ideas. But you

get them to sit up and take notice...with something like this."

The commission's final report, initiated at the request

of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), is due

in Congress Dec. 15. Horton hopes various congressional committees will

hold hearings next year and give the proposal a chance.

"We know [some] people think this is refining bibliographic controls

or bringing up an electronic granddaddy depository of GPO and NTIS materials,

but it goes beyond that," Horton said. "There is a lot that can be done

to diffuse government information to the public."

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