Try GovNews to get your agency EFOIA-compliant

And now, a new crisis arises in the form of your agency Freedom of Information Act
officer. He drops by to ask about putting up an electronic reading room by fall.


Passed last year, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act mandates that thousands of
new documents be available for the public to browse online. Your FOIA office is clueless
on how to do this, and you don't know who will do it or how to pay for it.


If what you need is a cheap and convenient way to distribute agency documents anywhere
in the world, then Govnews may be the solution for you. The Govnews project is being
conducted by a grassroots group of federal, state and local government personnel-including
me-plus some private citizens interested in using Internet newsgroups to distribute
information and promote communications between the government and the governed. As a
collection, UseNet can reach millions of people around the world for the price of an
e-mail server, a news server and some staff time.


Every day Usenet pushes around the world the equivalent of a newspaper with a million
pages in more than 20,000 sections. In my opinion, some newsgroups are boring or
pointless, although the participants in those groups probably think the same about my
favorite groups. So I just don't subscribe to the newsgroups I don't want to read. By
using e-mail, agencies can publish notices and documents even if they don't have Usenet
news.


The EFOIA was passed partly because taxpayers resent the difficulties in getting
information on the programs they have paid for. Many citizens want a forum to talk to
agencies and each other about government programs. Govnews can meet both needs. Visit http://www.govnews.org/ for information on how
to participate. If your agency wants to start a newsgroup or discussion topic, send a
message to hcc@govnews.org for a contact point.


You might ask, doesn't the government publish tons of information every day? Wouldn't
putting all this on line cost a fortune? It would if we did it with mainframe databases.
But the Federal Register and the Commerce Business Daily are about the same size as the
relatively small and moderately popular alt.fan.rush-limbaugh.


How will people find the government newsgroups? Word will get around to your regular
customers. Less frequent customers can search DejaNews, http://www.dejanews.com,
to retrieve postings on virtually any topic. Furthermore, the Green Eggs Report, at http://ibd.ar.com/ger,
shows the Internet sites mentioned in Usenet messages by newsgroup. In seconds, DejaNews
can retrieve every newsgroup posting and e-mail message sent to a mail list that is
mirrored on Usenet.


What does it take to get to these newsgroups? Actually, a lot less than it takes to get
on the Web. Most Internet providers either include Usenet access in their normal
subscription fees or offer it for a modest monthly fee. Your customers can log into the
news server using a news reader over their connection to the Internet.


Like an Internet mail server, a news server can be installed on a LAN, with the number
and type of newsgroups limited according to your needs and policies. If you have your own
server, the news comes only once for the entire organization, not once per user, as is the
case with the Web.


It's true that all sorts of stuff finds its way into Usenet, some of it unsavory.
However, participants ordinarily stick to a newsgroup's topic or risk getting flamed by
angry subscribers. So you can read all day and not encounter news that does not appeal to
you.


If this newsgroup idea is so great, why hasn't it been done before now? Newsgroups are
long popular among the Internet-savvy. But a lot of feds seem to believe that something
doesn't exist unless there is a sales force to persuade us to use it. Usenet has no chief
executive officer, marketing team or public relations. It consists of creative
propeller-heads all over the world writing software and providing free or dirt-cheap
services with incredible power and scope. Too often, we have recited the off-the-shelf
mantra in place of our own good sense.


So let's give the poor taxpayer a break. Join Govnews and get your agency onto this
cost-effective vehicle for low-priced information dissemination.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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