10 most
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About the Center for Democracy and Technology
The Center for Democracy and Technology works to promote democratic values and civil liberties in the digital age. With expertise in law, technology, and policy, CDT seeks practical solutions to enhance free expression and privacy in global communications technologies. CDT is dedicated to building consensus among all parties interested in the future of the Internet and other new communications media.
Center for Democracy & Technology
1634 Eye Street NW, Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 637-9800
(202) 637-0968 fax
http://www.cdt.org

About OMB Watch
OMB Watch is a nonprofit research, educational, and advocacy organization that focuses on budget issues, regulatory policy, nonprofit advocacy, access to government information, and activities at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB Watch co-chairs several coalitions in these issue areas, and is a leader in the use of communications technology (e.g., e-mail, the World Wide Web, and on-line databases) for collecting data and disseminating information to community groups across the nation.
OMB Watch
1742 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 234-8494
(202) 234-8584 fax
http://www.ombwatch.org

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. Findings

The Ten Most Wanted Government Documents
Five Government Web Sites on the Right Track
Policy Recommendations

II. Background on the Ten Most Wanted Project

III. Policy Background on Access to Government Information

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Electronic FOIA (EFOIA)
Government Information Locator Service (GILS)
Failures in EFOIA and GILS Implementation
Permanent Public Access

IV. Analysis of Ten Most Wanted Submissions

Ten Most Wanted Candidates
CRS
Cost
Requests for General Openness
Information Already Available Online
State and Local Information
Classified and Other Miscellaneous Requests

V. Analysis of Submissions

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I. Findings

The Ten Most Wanted Government Documents

1) Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports (Congress) — CRS uses taxpayer dollars to produce reports on public policy issues ranging from foreign affairs to agriculture to health care. All of the reports are posted online, but access is available only to congressional offices through an intranet system. Citizens can order paper copies of the reports through their Member of Congress, but only by mail. Moreover, the general public cannot search through past reports, and a comprehensive index of the reports is not available online. (Some Members have posted some CRS reports online.) In the CDT/OMB survey, the CRS reports were the category of documents most frequently listed sought after by researchers, students, librarians, government employees, and citizens alike.

2) Supreme Court Web site (including opinions and briefs) (Judiciary) — The Supreme Court of Mongolia has its own official Web site, but the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t. Instead, the Court refers people to one or more of 10 different unofficial Web sites, which publish various subsets of opinions, updated with varying frequency. While Court officials have said that they are exploring the possibility of creating a Web site, there is no official source of information from the highest court in the land. In addition to opinions, the Court should post briefs, at least in cases accepted for oral argument.

3) State Department's Daily Briefing Book (State) — Nearly every day, the State Department prepares for its press secretary a book of answers to every question that might be asked during the daily press conference. These briefing books represent considerable effort on the part of Department officials and constitute the best overview of American foreign policy positions on breaking issues at any given time. All the material is cleared for public consumption, yet if a reporter doesn’t ask a question on a particular topic, the information doesn’t get released.

4) Pesticide Safety Database (EPA) — Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), the EPA is required to maintain an extensive database on pesticides and pesticide "incidents" by location. This information concerns the health of millions of Americans. Right now, individuals can make a paper request for information about a particular pesticide or area of the country, but the information is not searchable online and cannot be compared across communities. Internet tools could assist in understanding and analyzing this data. Providing this information online in the form of a a searchable database, as the EPA has done with similar data sets, would enhance the public's understanding of the pesticide risks in local communities.

5) Full Text of all Congressional Hearings (Congress) — Prompt access to written statements and hearing transcripts is essential to the public’s participation in the legislative process. Printed records of hearings are often not available until a year or more after a hearing, sometimes long after legislation has been enacted or the term has ended. Some Committees regularly place witness statements and the full text of hearings online; others do not. Congressional committees should be more consistent in automating the process of posting witness statements and hearing transcripts to ensure speedy public access. Moreover, as transcripts are all word-processed, the Government Printing Office could easily make them permanently available online (if they were provided to GPO).

6) Court Briefs (DOJ) — The public deserves to know how the government interprets the laws. The Justice Department lawyers represent the US government and therefore are the people’s lawyers. Their briefs are public documents presenting the position of the US government. Since these documents are word-processed, they could very easily be put online, starting with significant criminal and civil cases.

7) Congressional votes in searchable database (Congress)— Congress has made roll-call votes available online, but they are impossible to search by Member’s name. . Public accountability would be greatly enhanced if citizens could find out how their Members of Congress voted through an online, searchable database of recorded votes.

8) Endangered Species Recovery Plans (DOI) — These documents detail how the government plans to defend endangered species and eventually get them off of the endangered species list. The Fish and Wildlife Service has told us that it plans to put these 700+ documents online eventually; meanwhile, researchers, students, and concerned citizens have to pay to have them sent in paper.

9) Official Gazette of Trademarks (DOC) — The Official Gazette of the United States Patent and Trademark Office is the official journal relating to patents and trademarks. It has been published weekly since January 1872. In searching for a reason why this publication is not online, USPTO said it was up to GPO. GPO said that it will put online anything USPTO or any other agency asks it to..

10) Circuit Court Web Sites (Judiciary) —The federal Circuit and District Courts have been slow to embrace the Web. Only 5 of the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals have Web sites providing access to opinions at no cost. While a number of law schools have stepped in to fill the gap, all circuit courts should have official sites providing the public with free access to court opinions. If five can do it, why can’t the rest?

Five Government Web Sites on the Right Track

1) FedStats http://www.fedstats.gov — The Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy maintains this site of statistics collected by over 70 federal agencies. The site’s information resources are vast and easy-to-use. It provides a model for inter-agency collaboration and for placing dense technical data online in a format that promotes meaningful access and use by the public.

2) Thomas http://thomas.loc.gov — Arguably the most famous of all federal government Web sites, Thomas allows individuals to search and browse through a wealth of information about congressional activity, including pending bills, enacted laws, the Congressional Record, Committee reports, and other materials. While many daily users wish it were more quickly updated, and while it does not include Committee votes, amendments and other useful material, it is a reliable and highly- used source of information.

3) NASA http://www.nasa.gov — At last check, NASA was the busiest government Web site, with good reason -- the site is innovative and well-designed, containing engaging and educational resources.

4) The Circuit and District Courts with free opinions http://www.uscourts.gov — While many courts complain that making opinions available online is too difficult and expensive, a select few have proved them wrong by creating excellent Web sites. For example, the Fifth, Seventh, Eleventh, DC, and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals all have reliable Web sites. A smaller percentage of District (trial level) courts, including the Southern District of Indiana and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, have sites that allow visitors to use various search tools to locate information.

5) GPO Access http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/ — When we weren’t sure if particular information was online, this was the first place that we looked. GPO Access provides a central point for access to information from all branches of government and has committed to provide permanent public access to the information on its servers. In addition to providing a valuable resource of government information on the Web, GPO continues to prod other agencies to place their information online. GPO Access may be the best kept secret on the Web — the Government should do more to inform the public that it exists.

Policy Recommendations

1) The Top Ten Documents should be put on the Web immediately.

2) All three branches (and the independent agencies) should institute procedures that make public access to government information via the Web the rule rather than the exception and an integral part of agencies' missions. In the long run, the Internet could render the old model of FOIA (individual citizen requests information, government employee searches for it, makes a copy and mails it to that one citizen, in a process repeated over and over again until all citizens have the information) obsolete.

3) In the Executive Branch, all documents, publications, statistics, and databases, including, but not limited to, everything printed by the Government Printing Office (GPO), should be posted online unless a senior official gives a narrowly defined reason why a particular item should not be available to the public. Simply placing information online will not suffice, however; there needs to be adequate cataloging and indexing of information. Existing laws already require federal agencies to place information online, but compliance is poor and enforcement weak. Therefore:

  • Federal agencies should fully implement the requirements of E-FOIA by providing an index of each agency's major information holdings;

  • OMB and federal agencies should comply with the mandate of the Paperwork Reduction Act to establish a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) -- Agencies must identify their major information systems, holdings, and dissemination products in online locators and should provide tools that enable the public to retrieve information directly while online; and

  • Federal agencies should ensure that all printed materials are distributed to federal depository libraries and should identify all such information products to GPO so they are cataloged electronically, to ensure that they can be searched and identified by the public.
  • 4) Federal agencies should develop policies and procedures for accepting and responding to information requests online.

    5) Building on the success of Thomas, Congress should fully utilize the interactive nature of the Internet to make full information available (e.g. committee markups, web casts at hearings) and to allow citizens to interact with their representatives online.

    6) The Judiciary should undertake a study of openness and the new technology, to develop a plan on how the Internet can be used to improve citizens' awareness of the judicial process, and a way to implement the plan. The study should include stakeholder participation.

    II. Background on the Ten Most Wanted Project

    The Ten Most Wanted Government Documents initiative is the result of a series of discussions among the Center for Democracy and Technology, OMB Watch, the Administration and Congressional staff about the failure of many government agencies to place information online despite requirements to do so. These discussions identified a general policy failure, but the participants wanted to demonstrate how this policy failure affects the daily lives of Americans by limiting their access to specific categories of vital information that should be online but aren’t. We believed that the best way to capture the scale and scope of the problem was to put a call out to activists, advocates, watchdog groups, reporters, researchers, librarians, government employees, and ordinary citizens asking for their help in identifying information that was missing in action. We thought this would be the most powerful method of demonstrating the public impact of this government information policy failure.

    The public's response surpassed our expectations. We received hundreds of responses from citizens, journalists, researchers, and activists hungry for online access to information. We also received comments praising the efforts of several federal agencies that make information available to the public online. Thus, we decided to also highlight the work of five agencies that are expanding the public's right to know. While no agency is perfect, these agencies provide models and examples of the innovative methods the Internet offers to promote public access to information.

    Based on the public's responses and conversations with various agencies, we developed a set of policy recommendations to improve access to government information online.

    III. Policy Background on Access to Government Information

    FOIA

    The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law in 1966. Through this Act, every citizen of the United States gained the right to access information held by the government — the right to obtain reproductions of records created and maintained by and for federal government agencies. The Act was created to "ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed." FOIA affirmed the public's right-to-know about the business of government as a central principle of our democratic government and open society.

    Since 1966, the Freedom of Information Act has been amended six times: in 1974, with minor amendments in 1976, 1978, and 1984, in 1986, and, most recently, in 1996. In each instance, the original Act was broadened to cover more information deemed necessary to ensure the public’s right to know about the activities of the federal government.

    The Freedom of Information Act covers records created within federal departments, agencies, and offices, federal regulatory agencies, and federal corporations. As defined by the Act, records include paper documents, films, tapes, and other materials created or obtained by an agency as part of its official duties. The 1996 amendments made clear that "records" also include electronically-created information such as databases, word processing, and e-mail.

    Under the FOIA, federal entities are required to disclose records upon the written request of a citizen, unless the records fall within one of the nine exemptions to the Act. Records may be withheld from the public if they are:

    • Specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy, and are classified as such;
    • Related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of any agency;
    • Specifically exempted from disclosure by statute;
    • Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential;
    • Inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency;
    • Personnel or medical files;
    • Records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes;
    • Contained in or related to examination, operating or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of any agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions; or,
    • Geological and geophysical information and data.

    The Freedom of Information Act is viewed by journalists, public interest organizations, and citizens as an important tool in opening federal agency policies and practices to public scrutiny. The congressional finding accompanying the 1996 amendments to the Act state that the FOIA has "led to the disclosure of waste, fraud, abuse and wrongdoing in the Federal Government," and has "led to the identification of unsafe consumer products, harmful drugs, and serious health hazards."

    Electronic FOIA

    In general, the 1996 amendments to FOIA were intended to simplify and expedite access to federal government records through the use of electronic communications media. The 1996 amendments received widespread bipartisan support, passing on a vote of 402-0 in the House, and by voice vote in the Senate. President Clinton signed the E-FOIA amendments into law on October 2, 1996. As noted in the floor debate, members of the public request more than 600,000 records a year from federal agencies, a volume that threatens to overwhelm some agencies. For example, a citizen requesting information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation is likely to wait four years for the information. By requiring information to be made available electronically, Congress sought to lessen the burden on federal agencies created by paper-processing and ensure the public timely and meaningful access to information.

    Requirements of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments

    Electronic Reading Rooms

    The 1996 amendments require agencies to make any of the following "reading room" records created on or after November 1, 1996 available online by November 1, 1997:

  • Opinions from agency adjudications, policy statements and interpretations adopted by the agency but not published in the Federal Register, and staff manuals and instructions that affect the public; and

  • A new category of records — "Repeatedly Requested" records (created on or after November 1, 1996) that have been processed and released in response to a FOIA request that "the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records."
  • If these records cannot be accessed online by November 1, 1997, they must be made available through other electronic means, such as disk or CD-ROM, by the November 1, 1997 deadline.

    FOIA-processed, "repeatedly requested" records created prior to November 1, 1996 are to be made available in the conventional (non-electronic) agency reading room.

    Reference Guides

    The 1996 amendments created a new set of agency requirements to aid the public in accessing federal government information.

    By March 31, 1997, each agency must provide, in its reading room and through an electronic site, reference material or a guide on how to request records from the agency. This reference guide must include:

  • an index of all major information systems of the agency;

  • a description of major information and record locator systems maintained by the agency; and

  • a handbook for obtaining various types and categories of public information from the agency, both through FOIA requests and through non-FOIA means.
  • By December 31, 1999, each agency must provide an electronic index of all "repeatedly requested" records, regardless of date of creation.

    Electronic Records

    In addition, the 1996 Amendments explicitly state that, under FOIA, the public has a right to gain access to records maintained by the agency in electronic form as well as paper records. For example, if an agency maintains an electronic database of information, a citizen may request the agency to search that database for requested information and produce an electronic copy of the entries that are responsive to the citizen’s request. An agency is required, moreover, to "make reasonable efforts to maintain its records in forms or formats that are reproducible for the purposes of the [FOIA]."

    GILS

    The U.S federal Government Information Locator Service (GILS) is a standard format used to identify, locate, and describe publicly available Federal information resources, including electronic information resources. It is essentially a cataloging format that uses international standards for information search and retrieval so that information about information — metadata — and, if the creator of the record so decides, the information itself can be retrieved in a variety of ways.

    The origin of GILS can be traced back to the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980, which first mandated the establishment of a system to assist in locating government information. After many delays and false starts, and after further congressional direction in 1986, OMB formally announced the Government Information Locator Service (GILS) in December,1994,. OMB Bulletin 95-01, implementing the GILS, required each agency head to "compile an inventory of its 1) Automated information systems, 2) Privacy Act systems of records, and, 3) locators that together cover all of its information dissemination products." It also established a GILS Board "to evaluate the development and operationof the GILS." The Board was tasked with "preparing and disseminating publicly an annual report that evaluates and recommends enhancements to GILS to meet user information needs, including factors such as accessibility, ease of use, suitability of descriptive language, as well as the accuracy, consistency, timeliness and completeness of coverage." The Board met once and failed to issue a formal report. Bulletin 95-01 expired on December 7, 1997, and was not reissued.

    In its place, OMB issued a Memorandum (M-98-05) on February 6, 1998 to the heads of the executive agencies, affirming the ongoing responsibility of agency heads to meet the requirements of Bulletin 95-01through annual reporting under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. Agencies were also directed to "routinely solicit feedback on their GILS performance, results, and plans from significant public stakeholders and user communities." OMB's responsibilities are not mentioned. The GILS Board disappeared -- replaced by a request from OMB that the Chief Information Officer (CIO) Council work with the Government Information Technology Services Board (GITSB) to train agencies in GILS best practices, further develop the U.S. Federal GILS guidelines, search standards and subject keywords, and coordinate "one stop" access to multi-agency government services. The CIO Council and GITSB have no mechanism for public participation or even input — nor do most agencies -- and the concerns for "user information needs, including factors such as accessibility, ease of use, suitability of descriptive language, as well as the accuracy, consistency, timeliness and completeness of coverage" have vanished. OMB personnel have publicly commented that they would like to change the meaning of the acronym GILS from Government Information Locator Service to Government Information Locator Standard; it looks like they may have accomplished that goal de facto.

    Failures in E-FOIA and GILS Implementation

    The legislative history of the 1996 Amendments to the FOIA make it clear that Congress expected OMB to give guidance on the reference guides. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, OMB is required to provide formal guidance to agencies regarding the implementation of laws, including the FOIA. OMB’s guidance on E-FOIA has not met Congress' expectations nor has it fulfilled its statutory obligations under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The result has been a failure to meet the important public access goals of FOIA, as agency upon agency fails to comply with the law.

    On April 7, 1997, OMB distributed a memorandum to agencies describing how to fulfill the requirements for a paper and online Freedom of Information index and guide. Not only was the memo distributed a full week after the March 31, 1997 deadline for completion of this task, guidance from OMB on these significant new amendments was minimal. To fulfill the index requirements, OMB recommended "establishing a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) presence," in accordance with a 1994 OMB Bulletin. While we agree with OMB that all agencies should have a well maintained GILS, this alone does not fulfill the more substantial E-FOIA amendment requirements. The 1994 OMB Bulletin on GILS instructed agencies to "compile an inventory" of their "automated information systems," "Privacy Act systems of records," and "locators that together cover all...information dissemination products," and describe each of these three by a "GILS Core locator records...made available online." The E-FOIA, however, does not limit agency reference guides to "automated information systems," but rather, requires an index of "all major information systems," a much broader category of information.

    In addition, OMB instructed agencies that GILS must include locators for "information dissemination products" which, in their guidelines, include only locators for catalogs of information disseminated to the public. E-FOIA, on the other hand, does not use this strict definition, but broadens the definition to include locators for records that are not currently disseminated to the public.

    Finally, entire classes of information — automated electronic mail and word processing systems — that were specifically included in the E-FOIA legislation are exempted from GILS. Therefore, agencies who follow OMB’s advice fall far short of meeting the E-FOIA amendments. Moreover, as noted in OMB Watch’s report (Potholes on the Information Bridge to the 21st Century), there is uneven and inadequate agency compliance with the GILS requirements— and no OMB enforcement.

    Guides

    OMB also suggested that agencies create a guide for obtaining FOIA information. OMB explained that this guide should include:

    • the location of reading rooms within the agency and its major field offices;

    • a brief description of the types and categories of information available in these reading rooms;

    • the location of the agency’s World Wide Web home page;

    • a reference to the agency’s FOIA regulations and how to get a copy; and,

    • a reference to the agency’s Freedom of Information Act annual report and how to get a copy.

    These suggestions also fall far short of what is required by EFOIA. With this memo, OMB seems to have overlooked the intent of the EFOIA legislation — to provide easier access to government information electronically. And, unfortunately, these minimal guidelines are what most of the Departments that OMB Watch looked at, in preparation for this report, are using as their guide. Most of them are not in compliance with the law. The following chart indicates whether agencies have complied with central E-FOIA requirements: (1) Does the agency have an Index of Major Information Systems? (2) Does the agency have record locators? and (3) Does the agency identify repeatedly requested documents?
    Agency
    Index of Major Information Systems
    Records Locators
    Identifiable Repeatedly Requested Documents
    Department of Agriculture No No No
    Department of Commerce No No No
    Department of Defense No No Yes*
    United States Air Force No No No
    United States Army No Records Sch* Yes*
    United States Marine Corp No No No
    United States Navy No No Yes*
    Department of Education No No No
    Department of Energy No No No
    Department of Health and Human Services No No Yes
    Department of Housing and Urban Development No No Yes
    Department of the Interior No No Yes
    Department of Justice** Yes Yes No
    Department of Labor No No Yes
    Department of State No Records Sch ?***
    Department of Transportation Yes No Yes
    Department of Treasury No No Yes
    Department of Veteran’s Affairs Yes No** Yes
    Executive Office of the President      
    Office of Administration Yes Records Sch No
    Office of Science and Technology Policy No No Yes
    Office of Management and Budget Yes No No
    Office of the U.S. Trade Representative No No Yes

    * Exists, but not easily identified.

    ** Points to GILS search engine. The requirement is an inventory, not the opportunity to guess.

    *** Department of State has a section called "special interest" which may be the frequently request documents.

    OMB's inadequate guidance has had significant consequences for OMB and for a number of other agencies. On December 4, 1997, Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest organization, filed a federal lawsuit to enforce the EFOIA. Seven federal agencies — the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State — were sued for failure to comply with the EFOIA requirements. The outcome of this litigation has yet to be decided in federal court.

    Permanent Public Access

    Policy makers, historians and librarians have often used the term "permanent public access" to explain the concept of making sure than public records — whether paper or electronic -- remain available and accessible to the public permanently. In the paper world, while many documents are not available to the public, those that are published by the government find permanent public homes in those depository libraries that have comprehensive collections. This is increasingly not the case in the online world. Often, old Web documents are deleted or pushed aside as new officials come in and revamp an agency Web site.

    The only provisions for permanent public access to the public’s information exist in legislation having to do with the Government Printing Office — specifically, the Superintendent of Documents, the Federal Depository Library Program, and GPO Access. Title 44, Chapter 19, Sec. 1902 requires that government publications, "except those determined by their issuing components to be required for official use only or for strictly administrative or operational purposes which have no public interest or educational value and publications classified for reasons of national security," be made available to depository libraries through the Superintendent of Documents for public information. Each component of the Government is, moreover, required to furnish the Superintendent of Documents with a list of such publications, issued during the previous month, that were obtained from sources other than the Government Printing Office.

    Title 44, Chapter 41, Sec. 4101 authorizes and mandates that the Superintendent of Documents, under the direction of the Public Printer, (1) maintain an electronic directory of Federal electronic information; (2) provide a system of online access to the Congressional Record, the Federal Register, and, as determined by the Superintendent of Documents, other appropriate publications distributed by the Superintendent of Documents; and (3) operate an electronic storage facility for Federal electronic information to which online access is made available under paragraph (2). The Superintendent of Documents is also authorized, to the extent practicable, to accommodate any request by the head of a department or agency to include in the system of access referred to above information that is under the control of the department or agency involved.

    Currently, no other statutes, regulations, or policies require permanent public access to the public’s information government-wide.



    IV. Analysis of Ten Most Wanted Submissions

    On June 28, 1999, CDT and OMB Watch put out a call to the public requesting their suggestions of categories of unclassified government information that would be valuable to the public if posted and regularly updated on an agency's Web site. The call went to Internet activists, reporters, researchers, librarians, government employees, and ordinary citizens through Internet mailing lists and "Wanted!" posters on the World Wide Web.

    By August 1, over 196 responses (individual emails) were received yielding a list of 280 requests (documents sought). Since individuals were able to submit responses anonymously, it is impossible to give an exact breakdown of the requestors (individuals making requests). However, we can determine that the requests came from a wide range of sources, including: 46 from the research community, 30 from government employees, 23 from librarians and library organizations, 22 from students, 13 from reporters and 27 from people that simply identified themselves as citizens.

    As would be expected from such a general call and such a high response rate, the requests were extremely varied. However, the requests generally fell into six categories:

  • Ten Most Wanted Candidates — 165 of the requests were for specific documents or data categories that could not be located online and were available in paper. These requests were considered for the 10 Most Wanted List.

  • Requests for General Openness — 31 general requests were general calls for greater openness in government.

  • Information Already Available Online — 25 requests were for information that we found was already available online.

  • State and Local Information — 11 requests were for state or local information.

  • Classified and Other Miscellaneous Requests — 48 requests for classified information or for information that is not already being collected by the government. (FOIA does not require the government to create new records, only to disclose what is already on hand.)
  • Since each of these categories is of potential interest to both policymakers and the public, we have a qualitative analysis of each.

    CRS

    In our initial call for requests, we mentioned Congressional Research Service as an example of documents that we believe should be available. While some may say that this biased the number of requests for CRS reports, we believe that it would have been the most wanted category of documents, regardless, for a couple of reasons:

    Requestors were passionate about getting this information — We received requests for CRS information from seven researchers and four librarians. Some mentioned specific CRS documents that they were trying to track down or that would be generally beneficial to their community. We received requests from three government employees, including at least one Capitol Hill staffer who said:

    "Every citizen should have the same access to CRS material as I do."

    Legislation has been introduced on this issue — Senator McCain (R-AZ), along with co-sponsors Senators Leahy (D-VT), Lott (R-MS), Abraham (R-MI), Robb (R-VA), Enzi (R-WY), Lincoln (D-AR), Feingold (D-WI), and Sessions (R-AL) introduced the Congressional Openness Act (S. 393), which would make CRS documents available online. This bill has increased public attention to the issues of access to congressional information and access to government information in general. Representative Shays (R-CT) and Representative Price (D-NC) have a similar bill in the House (HR 654).

    Ten Most Wanted Candidates

    Selecting the "Ten Most Wanted" from the 164 entries was difficult. Early on, we decided not to make the list a simple popularity contest. The majority of candidates were documents and databases that were mentioned by only one respondent, but we did not take this to mean that other individuals would not want access to the same information, for a few important reasons:

    • Individuals may not know that the documents exist — Many of the requestors were government employees, government document librarians, and researchers. These individuals have a specialized knowledge of the range of documents that exist. Average citizens may be quite interested in these documents, but the fact that citizens — in the absence of adequate online indexing and search tools -- must guess what documents are available is an ongoing barrier to access.

    • Requests came from various kinds of requestors Some of the requestors were individuals, but some represented institutions or organizations. For example, at the American Library Association’s recent convention, the ALA’s Government Documents Roundtable developed its own "Ten Most Wanted" list in collaboration with our project. The list was sent in and is reported here as 10 requests from a single requestor, yet this organization represents hundreds of librarians.

    • Some requests were for general information categories, while others were for specific documents — The call for suggestions was purposely general, in order to try to capture a range of types of documents. The result was exactly what we asked for. For example, we received single requests for clean air, water resources, and pesticide information from all agencies, but we also received requests for very specific water resources documents such as "Water Resources Investigations Reports (I 19.42/4)." We decided to try to select the specific documents and data sets that would interest the most people.

    Our "Ten Most Wanted" list reflects additional considerations:

    • Diversity of Branches — None of the branches of government has been completely effective in making documents available online. We wanted to make sure that this was reflected in the final list.

    • Diversity of Subject Matter — Government information covers a wide variety of subjects.

    • Variety of Material — Requests ranged from databases to maps to specific reports. We wanted to make sure that the "Ten Most Wanted" list was not restricted to one type of resource.

    • Feasibility — Since we were searching for the most egregious cases, we attempted to weigh the amount of effort and resources that would have to be devoted to make the information available against the benefit that having the information could provide. (see detailed information on cost)

    • Frequency of Request — Although popularity was not the only concern, it did influence the selection process.

    Contact was made with all of the agencies that held documents considered for inlcusion in the final "Ten Most Wanted" list. The agencies were given the opportunity to show that the information was already available online; to give an explanation of why the information was not online; or to convince us that this information would not be a good candidate.

    Numbers of Requests

    Frequency of Requests

    Of the 165 Ten Most Wanted Candidates:

    • 19 were for CRS reports
    • 13 were for judicial branch opinions (5 specifically for Supreme Court opinions)
    • 12 were for air and/or water quality reports (including pesticides)
    • 10 were for USGS maps or related reports
    • 4 were for treaties
    • 4 were for historical census data
    • 4 were for full text of Congressional hearings
    • 4 were for complete text of US Code (some specifically mentioned daily updates)
    • most of the rest were single requests for data sets or documents

    Agencies requested

    The 165 Ten Most Wanted candidates identified 30 different agencies. Here is a listing with the number of requests next to the agency name:

    CIA — 1

    Federal Broadcast Information Service — 1

    Congress — 29

    FCC — 3

    Department of Agriculture — 8

    Federal Election Commission — 1

    Department of Commerce - 15

    Federal Emergency Management Agency — 2

    Department of Defense — 7

    Federal Housing Finance Board — 1

    Department of the Interior — 13

    General Services Administration — 2

    Department of Justice — 2

    IRS — 2

    Department of Labor — 1

    Judicial Branch — 14

    Department of Education — 2

    National Archives and Records Administration — 1

    Department of Health and Human Services — 6

    Office of Management and Budget — 2

    Department of State — 9

    Office of Personnel Management — 2

    Department of Transportation — 3

    OPS — 1

    Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — 1

    Public Debt Agency — 1

    EPA — 10

    Social Security Administration — 1

    The remaining requests were for documents across several agencies or for data sets still under investigation at the time this report was published.

    In some cases, we did not indicate a missing document set on the Ten Most Wanted list because the agency seemed to have dissemination plans for the future. For example, while the maps of the US Geological Survey (USGS) were some of the most frequently requested documents, the agency was able to show that it has a plan for making this information available. Included in this plan, USGS has outlined ways to address some of the cost issues in innovative ways as they integrate the vast amount of the agency’s information online. While this does not fully answer all of the concerns about USGS, it evidences an understanding that the information needs to be publicly available online. We will continue to monitor their progress.

    Cost

    In an era of major budget cuts, cost was the issue most often cited by the agencies and government officials in explaining their failure to create Web sites or post certain sets of information. In some cases, this may be a valid concern and it was taken into account in selecting the final ten. Yet, sometimes exactly the opposite is true: putting information online will save the government money.

    Of the agencies on the "Ten Most Wanted" list that mentioned cost as an issue, only CRS had a public estimate of how much it would cost taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did a preliminary cost estimate confirming CRS’ claims and estimated the cost from between that ranged from $1.8 to $7.1 million.

    However, our subsequent inquiries and reports from the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the Government Printing Office (GPO) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prove that many of the basic assumptions in the CBO’s report are unfounded. The CBO began with the assumptions that:

    • due to the publicity of having a Web site, requests for paper copies of existing CRS reports would increase rather than decrease;
    • Congress and the public would request more new studies, causing a ballooning of the CRS budget by between 2% and 10%, which accounted for most of the cost; and
    • Congressional offices would not receive any meaningful savings to make up for the short term costs of the agency.

    The experience of the GAO, an agency that also creates reports at the request of Members of Congress, would lead to a completely different set of conclusions. GAO began putting up all of its reports in October 1994 through GPO Access and in 1996 decided that it would be cost effective to begin providing the reports on a GAO Web site directly to the public. Despite the fact that citizens can order the first printed copy of GAO products for free directly online, the actual number of copies that GAO has printed has gone down from 1.2 million a year to 800,000 a year. Meanwhile 150,000 to 200,000 copies of every report are being downloaded online. Although this number does not represent the total number of people looking at each report, since some people download the same report more than once, there are obviously more people seeing these reports than ever before. GAO sources also say that the agency has seen no increase in requests from Congress to create reports and no increase in phone calls from the public about the reports. This also does not take into account the more difficult to gauge savings that Congressional offices are experiencing now because constituents can browse through GAO reports including the staff research time saved. While there may have been some initial start-up costs to put the data on a GAO Web site, there is no question that GAO has saved taxpayers money over the long term by putting all reports online.

    GPO has documented similar savings. GPO’s 1997 Report to Congress has a section titled "GPO Access Benefits and Savings from Dissemination of Electronic Information," which found that:

    The dissemination of electronic information through GPO Access has provided both tangible and intangible benefits, as well as real cost savings for the GPO. While it is not possible to calculate these benefits and savings for all of our products, CBDNet presents an example of this trend. CBDNet has provided cost savings both to the public and throughout the Government. When the Commerce Business Daily was distributed only in paper, it cost $2.2 million a year, and distribution was limited to those individuals who could afford a subscription. Prior to CBDNet, agencies paid $18 per notice submitted to CBD. Now agencies who submit notices electronically are only charged $5 per notice. It is estimated that this electronic submission option is saving the Government, on average, over $130,000 per month, or over $1.5 million per year. These financial savings and the many other benefits mentioned previously have made CBDNet a huge success.

    GPO sources have also told us that demand for paper products has diminished as the information has gone online. GPO‘s1999 report to Congress is expected to provide even more details of the cost savings agencies can reap by providing the public electronic access.

    The IRS has also documented a fall in the demand for paper products as their downloads of forms has increased from less then 4 million in 1996 to over 63 million this year. This translates into direct savings since, by the agency’s figures, it costs about $3 to mail an IRS paper product and less than a penny to provide it online.

    For agencies concerned about potential short-term costs, GPO Access is willing to place agencies' information online. In fact, GPO sees online services as central to its public mission. They provide server space, Web design, database work, and more. The price would be lower than the short-term costs associated with an agency putting information online in house with the added benefits of permanent public access. While this option does not give agencies all of the long-term benefits, it does offer a solution in times of difficult budget cuts and it ensures the public's right to know will not be undercut.

    Requests for General Openness

    We received 31 requests for greater government openness and increased access to information online. These requests fell into two specific categories:

    Suggestions on how to make agencies more accountable — Several respondents shared specific thoughts on how to get more information online. For example:

    "Every agency that has data should create their own Top 10 variables and post them as a time series going back at least 20 years in an easily accessible place on their website."

    and

    "a master online, searchable, bibliographies, (including at least one publication number) of: all studies, publications, reports, and other 'work products'. that was produced inhouse or outsourced (grant, contract, inter-agency agreement, and/or cooperative agreement)."

    Concern over the vast amount of missing information— Some respondents pointed to a general failure within the government to get information online. For example,

    "As a government documents librarian at a small public college in the poorest state in the nation, I can tell you that there are thousands of essential government documents that are not available on the web. I am checking available links against the SuDocs List of Classes to evaluate our collection and finding that there is little consistency in site maps, publications lists, and other tools for finding what is available from agency to agency even within the same executive department..."

    and

    "I think anything that is supposed to be public information should be available online. I fail to understand how some information, though supposedly public, can be restricted and available only by going through one's representative. This is compliance?"

    The fact that 31 people wrote in without a specific document in mind emphasizes the overarching public concern with the lack of access to government information.

    Information Already Available Online

    In several cases, the information being sought is online, but citizens have such a difficult time locating it, it hardly matters. Since requesters thought that the following information was not online, we decided to explain how to locate it, explain how the government’s Web sites are integrated and let agencies know about the documents that cannot be located easily, in the hope that agencies will improve their searching and indexing resources.

    Documents on GPO Access

    GPO Access http://www.access.gpo.gov is one of the best sources for online information and probably the first place that researchers should look if they are having trouble. We found all of the following documents there:

    The budget (4 Requests)

    GPO

    http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_doc s/budget

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (1 request) and All Executive Orders (1 request)

    GPO

    http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara /nara003.htm

    Congressional Record (3 requests)

    GPO

    http://www.access.gpo .gov/su_docs/aces/aces150.html

    Economic Report of the President

    GPO

    http://www.access.gpo.gov/eop/< /TD>

    Veteran Qualifying Conditions for Disability Benefits

    GPO

    http://www.a ccess.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_98/38cfr4_98.html

    The "Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents," which includes Executive Orders and other Presidential documents, is only available through a keyword searchable database. Plans to make these records searchable through a browsing mechanism are underway.

    Census Data

    We had many requests for "more" census data online. We were able to locate the specific information requested from the agency's homepage.

    Statistical Abstract of the United States (3 requests)

    DOC (Census)

    http://www.cens us.gov/prod/3/98pubs/98statab/cc98stab.htm

    Census TIGER data

    DOC (Census)

    http://www.census.gov/geo/www/tiger/

    Congressional Information

    We received a few requests for a tracking mechanism on certain subjects. Fortunately such a tool exists. Thomas http://thomas.loc.gov was created by the Library of Congress to help citizens keep track of legislative proposals. Generally, the Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov ; either of the two Congressional sites http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov ; or GPO Access are good places to start looking for legislative and Congressional information. We also received a request for the Cox Report, which, at the time this report was published was linked directly from the House Home Page http://www.house.gov .
    legislation tracking (2 requests) LOC (Thomas)

    http://thomas.loc.gov

    Cox Report on China and National Security Congress

    http://www.house.gov/coxreport/

    Grant Information

    Information on Federal Grants is spread throughout the federal government. Unfortunately, there is still no way to track down the information without knowing where to start. There are several sites that have sprung up dedicated to grant information, notably GrantsNet http://www.hhs.gov/progorg/grantsne t/ on the Department of Health and Human Services Web site which includes a "Who’s Who in Federal Grants Management." The best single online source for information is the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA), which describes itself as "a government-wide compendium of Federal programs, projects, services, and activities that provide assistance or benefits to the American public." It is put together by the General Services Administration.

    Reports on Grants available

    GSA

    http://www.gsa.gov/fdac/

    Labor Information

    Although one might think that the Department of Labor would have links to all labor oriented information in the government, this is not the case. The Department of Labor has a useful set of information on its Web site, but it does not have easy-to-find links to other important sources of information on the U.S. workforce. We found these two sites more by chance than by plan.

    National Labor Relations Board decisions

    NLRB

    http://www.nlrb.gov/decision.html

    < P>Pension Plan Database

    PBGC

    http://search.pbgc.gov/

    Pending Regulations

    The Office of Management and Budget http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/ keeps track of all pending paperwork and regulations. These databases are online at the White House site http://www.whitehouse.gov/ , which, along with GPO Access, is the first place that someone looking for information from the Executive Branch may want to start.

    Pending Regulations

    OMB

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/OMB/inforeg/index.html#Reg

    Zip Code Lookup

    The Post Office http://www.usps.gov makes this database available in many formats. A quick look at the agency home page and we located this useful tool.

    Zip code definitions (including +4)

    USPS

    http://www.usps.gov/ncsc/

    "Falling Through the Net"

    We received a request for the Department of Commerce’s recent report, "Falling Through the Net." The requestor thought that the report was written by the FCC. A look on GSA’s full government search engine http://www.info.gov can help get a requestor to their report without knowing the agency that created.

    "Falling through the Net" report

    DOC (NTIA)

    http://www.ntia.doc.gov/n tiahome/digitaldivide/

    State and Local Information

    We limited the "Ten Most Wanted" list to federal government documents. However, we received 11 requests for state information. Requests ranged from "county and city budgets" to aerial maps of certain locations.

    Classified and Other Miscellaneous Requests

    Many requests were for historical documents that have piqued the nation’s curiosity, for example, John F. Kennedy assassination records and investigations into possible alien landings in the U.S. Most of the non-classified records in these subject areas are available online.

    Another large percentage of requests were for large collections that do not currently exist, for example,

    "Breakout of bills proposed and an analysis of their consequences plus an analysis of proposed riders showing who is trying to ride pork on a bill by including costly irrelevancy."

    Other requests raised various concerns. For example, one request suggested that military service records should be put online. These records are in many different locations, would be expensive to data process, and could cause significant privacy concerns among the nation’s veterans.



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