Out of step

If the past few years have taught us anything, it's that the
government should be cautious about trying to develop and enforce standards for itself in
a vacuum. Especially when those standards fly in the face of market realities, feds waste
years of effort fulfilling oversight mandates.


For example, the regulatory powers-that-be insisted on Open Standards Interconnection
standards--and their offspring, the Government OSI Profile--before grudgingly accepting
TCP/IP for government networks, long after the market at large had made its choice.
Similarly, as the government rushes to catch up in electronic commerce, it is finding the
existing EC infrastructure is probably cheaper and better than FACNET.


Now there's another example of how federal roll-your-own can impede progress. It
concerns the technical specs for the Government Information Locator Service.


The Office of Management and Budget has decreed that agencies must create on-line
catalogs of their data resources that the public can use, a worthy notion. But OMB also is
telling agencies precisely how to go about this endeavor.


OMB wants GILS services to adhere to Federal Information Processing Standard 192, which
incorporates International Standards Organization standard Z39.50 (1992). The problem:
Very little commercial software implements this standard. And the software that is
available is expensive, $15,000 to $25,000 per server.


Moreover, few in government and relatively fewer in the communities that might use such
on-line information know much about the client side of such software.


This standard is not necessarily a bad one, but technology and culture have overtaken
it. That's because it was developed before the World Wide Web took root. Today the Web is
ubiquitous, and inexpensive products for automatic browsing and file-finding on the Web
are sprouting almost daily.


Many corporations are putting catalogs, directories, technical manuals and training on
line via their Web sites. No big secret here; scores of agencies are doing the same thing.


But when they do, they're failing to comply with the GILS plan. It's time to get the
regulations up to date.


Congress, with White House concurrence, has designated OMB as the new overseer of
federal systems. So now would be an ideal time for OMB to rethink its insistence on FIPS
192. Alternatively, the National Institute of Standards and Technology should rewrite its
FIPS, allowing agencies to use standard Web protocols for GILS.


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