OMB memo fuels debate over cataloging

Has search technology ad-vanced far enough to overcome the compulsion to categorize and catalog each piece of data? The Office of Management and Budget thinks so—at least in most cases.

That’s why the administration’s new policy fulfilling Section 207 of the E-Government Act of 2002 is drawing the ire of some critics who say that, without sufficient cataloging or metadata tagging, information will be less accessible. The policy tells agencies to categorize information but, detractors say, doesn’t go into enough detail.

The policy is the latest example of the debate over how much categorization is needed to make government information publicly accessible, and whether search technology is good enough to find specific information.
In a memo issued last month, Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management, detailed three steps—mostly involving publishing materials online—that agencies must complete by Sept. 1 to meet the law’s requirements.

Further advice

The memo also encourages agencies to use the newest version of the Federal Enterprise Architecture Data Reference Model. OMB released Version 2.0 of the DRM last month.

The memo follows recommendations the Interagency Committee on Government Information, established under the E-Government Act to help implement Section 407, sent to OMB in December 2004.

But at least one federal official, who requested anonymity, said OMB ignored the committee’s suggestions.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the bill’s author, said there are “serious concerns about whether OMB’s new guidelines comply with the act’s requirements.” He added that he intends to ask OMB officials “to explain how the policy meets statutory mandates.”

Patrice McDermott, deputy director for government relations at the American Library Association, called the policy disturbing. “Essentially, what OMB appears to be saying is ... if you put [information] on your Web site or post it electronically, you have fulfilled all requirements of law,” McDermott said. “That is not true. That is not the spirit or intent of the law.”

There were a lot of discussions of the distinctions between publications and records, McDermott said. “That becomes less and less clear on the Web, but the intent was for agencies to do an inventory of all of their information and to categorize or catalog it, and apply some metadata to it so that anyone going in anywhere in government could search across agencies and meaningfully find things.”

‘Not so’

OMB disputes the complaints.

“This policy certainly meets the spirit and intent of the E-Government Act and capitalizes the extraordinary advances in search technology, including the way they crawl and index information preparing it for retrieval,” said an OMB official who requested anonymity. “To say that this policy ‘only’ requires agencies to post information ignores the great advances in search technologies over the past two or so years and the considerable ongoing research.”

In the guidance, Johnson said agencies might be meeting some of the requirements already and outlined three steps they must complete.

The three steps do not include any of ICGI’s recommendations, the federal official said. ICGI defined what categorizable information is, suggested searchable identifiers such as handles or a Uniform Resource Name and said agencies should use ISO standard 23950 for interoperable search.

“Libraries have been doing this for 100 years, and agencies have been doing this for many years,” McDermott said. “Agencies need to ... build on those efforts that were quite successful in government. They don’t have to catalog to the level that libraries do, but have to do more than they are doing now.”

The OMB official said the administration considered the ICGI’s recommendations but found them “unnecessarily complex and too costly for agencies to implement and sustain.”

Rick Blum, director of, a coalition of library, journalist and first amendment groups concerned about government secrecy, applauded the government for trying to make information more accessible but said they cannot cut out the importance of human intervention.

“If I’m worried about clean water, how can I find out about threats and background about those threats?” he asked.

“You can’t Googlize that information. That requires human intervention. ... There are limits to search engines.”

But he added that Web sites are most useful when linked to the most relevant and comprehensive information, and use a combination of search engine technology and human intervention.

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