GAO fails to deliver

On March 16, the 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth, the General Accounting Office released this report: "Progress in Implementing the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] Amendments." It reviews the progress at 25 federal departments and agencies and finds that all have established electronic reading rooms.

Break out the champagne! GAO also found, however, that agencies have yet to make all required documents available electronically. Oops. So the agencies have done the easiest thing, but not really complied with the law. Can we put the cork back?

Although GAO found greater compliance than my organization, OMB Watch, did in its 1999 report, the GAO report does not specify what criteria it used in assessing agency compliance with such requirements as the inventory of major information systems. OMB Watch found that agencies, where they complied with the inventory requirement at all, had merely listed the Privacy Act systems that they already must list in the Federal Register.

GAO gives no indication of what it understood "major information systems" to mean, and there is no evidence of what it took to gain a checkmark for compliance -- one system listed? Nor does the report give any inkling that GAO was aware of a December 2000 opinion in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on just this issue (the suit was brought by Public Citizen against the Office of Management and Budget and several agencies).

Also, GAO apparently considered the posting of a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) record — even if only a single record for an entire department — as complying with the requirement to describe the agency's records-locator systems. This meets guidance given by OMB but fails to meet the requirements of the Electronic FOIA amendments. A GILS record at the agency level tells you what the agency does and, maybe, how it is organized. It does not tell how the agency organizes its record creation and recordkeeping.

GAO found that the Justice Department and other agencies have implemented the required reporting provisions, but although these reports provide a good overview of Electronic FOIA activities across government, "data quality issues limit their usefulness." The same could be said of GAO's report.

It's disturbing to contemplate the resources expended in conducting this study. Apparently, however, very few resources were expended in compiling the study; it is essentially a printout, with minor changes, of the transparencies used in a briefing last December to the staffs of Sens. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the House Government Reform Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee. No supporting documentation is provided.

Neither Justice nor OMB should take comfort in this report, nor should those congressional members who requested it. If they do, GAO has done a disservice to both the government and the public.

McDermott is an information security analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

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