E-Gov Act vs. E-FOIA

On Dec. 9, 2002, Congress presented the E-Government Act of 2002 to President Bush for his signature. According to the act, it pushes the "use of the Internet and other information technologies to provide increased opportunities for citizen participation in government," requires "government agencies to provide citizen-centric government information and services" and provides "enhanced access to government information and services," among other things.

All are worthy goals, and the act includes many things intended to help achieve them. Unfortunately, the act also includes provisions that look like a step backward.

Most notably, the act requires the Office of Management and Budget to develop guidance within two years regarding agency Web site maintenance. Each site must include links to:

* A description of the agency's mission and statutory authority.

* Information typically available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

* Information on the agency's organizational structure.

* A copy of the agency's strategic plan.

At some time after the guidance is formulated — and the timeline is currently undefined — agencies will be required to comply with it.

This might, at first, seem like progress, but there is a problem: Agencies have been required since the 1996 enactment of the Electronic FOIA to provide essentially the same information and more. E-FOIA required agencies to provide the public with electronic access to:

* All agency orders and final opinions.

* All statements of policy and interpretations an agency adopts.

* All administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that may affect a member of the public.

* All records released to any person that are likely to be the subject of future requests by others.

Last summer, the General Accounting Office released a report analyzing the progress made by 25 major agencies in implementing E-FOIA. GAO found that six years after E-FOIA became law, many agencies have failed to fully implement its minimum requirements. Furthermore, there is a growing backlog of unanswered citizen requests for information at many agencies, according to GAO. This is hardly what Congress intended when it passed E-FOIA.

Meaningful public access to government data is the starting point for substantial progress in e-government. Congress should be pushing agencies to comply immediately with the E-FOIA requirements. Instead, Congress seems content to have included in the E-Government Act access provisions that pale in comparison to the earlier requirements and give agencies years to meet even those watered-down requirements.

I hope that the Bush administration will do more than merely meet the E-Government Act requirements. With sufficient emphasis, it should be able to implement both the E-Government Act and the earlier E-FOIA in short order, to the benefit of both itself and citizens seeking information on their government.

Peckinpaugh is corporate counsel for DynCorp in Reston, Va. This column represents his personal views.

RELATED INFOMaterials discussed in this column include: E-Government Act of 2002, H.R. 2458 (Presented to the President Dec. 9, 2002); Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, Pub. L. No 104-231, 110 Stat. 3048 (Oct. 2, 1996); GAO, Information Management: Update on Implementation of the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, No. GAO-02-493 (August 2002).


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