Bush needs to act on information policies

Robert Gellman

What should President Bush do on the information policy front? Common responses to this question include grandiose suggestions for new laws, offices and programs. I think the major response should deal with implementation, and I have some pedestrian suggestions.

One choice facing the administration has to do with the position of privacy counselor in the Office of Management and Budget. Peter Swire, who has held the job for the last two years, did a credible job given the scanty resources available.
Should this position be continued? Perhaps, but it can be useful only if a constructive individual holds the job. Otherwise, we would be better off with no one.

A new administration will presumably place its own stamp on the federal Internet presence. In fact, the Bush crowd already has. The tension is always between centralization and individuality. Given all the agencies and Web sites, it is unreasonable to expect much uniformity. It is hard enough for a large agency to impose a common look and feel across its own components.

The right agenda for the Internet is conceptually simple: Keep pumping out as much information and as many services as possible to meet public needs. Of course, Web sites need appropriate search engines and other tools. Agencies should be more aggressive in seeking user input, and they need better tools to evaluate their Web sites. The new administration should tell agencies what to do, not how to do it.

The most pressing Internet challenge is preservation. Saving Web pages and databases for the long term haunts all Internet activities. The National Archives and Records Administration has failed to help agencies address electronic-records issues. This problem requires high-level attention from someone who will produce results. OMB needs to step in and get something done.

The Freedom of Information Act was updated in 1996, but not every agency has completed the work necessary to meet the requirements. It would be nice if all agencies finished the work by the end of next year. Is that too much to ask?

Also on the FOIA administrative front, I renew my suggestion to abolish the Office of Information and Privacy at the Justice Department. The office is filled with overpaid bureaucrats who do little to fulfill the objectives of FOIA. It has two co-directors, which makes no sense for such a small office. The office lacks the clout, personnel and interest to prevent agencies from abusing FOIA.

We do not need any changes to the Executive Order on Security Classification. But there has been so much agitation over declassification and other issues from Republican constituencies that I suspect we will end up with a revised set of rules to forestall implementation of parts of the Clinton administration's classification order. Unfortunately, the things that don't require attention sometimes attract the most interest.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at [email protected]


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