What? You haven't heard about Section 515?

Robert Gellman

The latest development in the information policy world derives from language tacked onto the fiscal 2001 Treasury appropriations bill last year. Section 515 ordered agencies to pay attention to the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of information they disseminate.

What's so terrible about that? Well, there's more. Agencies must issue guidelines, establish administrative mechanisms for complaints and corrections, and report annually to the Office of Management and Budget. OMB issued draft rules on June 28, and comments were due this month.

I don't blame OMB for this particular nonsense. It came, as many dumb things do, from Congress. OMB's draft rules make about as much sense as is possible under the circumstances. The draft limits the damage by tying the new process to existing quality mechanisms.

Rumor has it that a lobbyist dreamed up the original idea and sold it to a paying client and a gullible member of Congress. The chief beneficiaries of the new rule will be lobbyists. They will now have a new device for sucking money from clients who don't like the latest bit of data from an agency and who are stupid enough to think that filing a complaint will accomplish something other than enriching the lobbyist.

The whole process is guaranteed to be meaningless. It is Washington at its worst. Take a disagreement and turn it into a procedural nightmare that will resolve nothing and take forever. Don't forget to include standards like quality, objectivity, utility and integrity that have no clear definitions.

Agencies must accept complaints, but they don't have a deadline for processing them. Based on experience with Freedom of Information Act compliance, it seems highly likely that complaint-processing time for Section 515 may be measured in years or decades.

I would not want to be the first agency on my block to implement this law. I suspect it won't last more than a couple of years. Why? Because the principal uses of the new process will be for political purposes, and the last thing we need is a new forum for political disputes.

Organizations that do not like the Bush administration can use the new procedure to challenge any statement, press release, speech or other pronouncement coming from an agency.

To give just one example, environmental groups could have a field day filing complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency administrator's latest speech failed to meet statutory standards for quality, objectivity, utility and integrity. They would then issue a press release denouncing it and highlighting the complaint. This would be fun for a while until the press got tired of reporting on nothing.

For their part, agencies will have to go through the grind to meet the legal requirements. It might be a lot easier and cheaper just to post a disclaimer on every Web site and document saying that the information presented is the best the agency could manage given the constraints of time, staff and resources.

As if everyone didn't know that already.

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


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