OMB policy on posting information sparks debate

The Office of Management and Budget's new policy asking agencies to improve how they disseminate public information is at the heart of a larger battle over how much categorization is needed to make government information publicly accessible.

The new policy, required by the E-Government Act of 2002, is another piece in an ongoing disagreement over whether search technology is good enough to find specific instances of government information or whether metadata tagging and other categorization techniques are necessary at some level.

In a memo issued late last week, Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, detailed three steps'for the most part involving publishing materials online'agencies must complete by Sept. 1 to meet the requirements outlined in Section 207 of the E-Government Act of 2002.

The memo also encourages agencies to use the newest version of the Federal Enterprise Architecture Data Reference Model to meet those requirements. OMB released Version 2.0 of the DRM earlier this week.

The memo follows recommendations from the Interagency Committee on Government Information that were sent to OMB in December 2004. The E-Government Act directed OMB to set up the committee to help implement Section 207.

But at least one federal official, who requested anonymity, said OMB ignored the committee's suggestions and is asking agencies to do nothing more than they are doing now.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the bill's author, said there are 'serious concerns about whether OMB's new guidelines comply with the act's requirements.' He added that he intends to ask OMB officials 'to explain how the policy meets statutory mandates.'

Lieberman's office would not offer any more specifics on his concerns.

Patrice McDermott, deputy director for government relations for the American Library Association, called the policy 'disturbing.'

'Essentially, what OMB appears to be saying is, for information you want to make publicly accessible, if you put it on your Web site or post it electronically, you have fulfilled all requirements of law,' McDermott said. 'That is not true. That is not the spirit or intent of the law.'

She added that intent of law was to give the public the ability to know about and gain access to all information the government creates.

'There was a lot of discussions of how deep that goes and the distinctions between publications and records,' McDermott said. 'That becomes less and less clear on the Web, but the intent was for agencies do an inventory of all of their information and to categorize or catalog it, and apply some metadata to it so that anyone going in anywhere in government could search across agencies and meaningfully find things.'

But OMB disputes the complaints.

'This policy certainly meets the spirit and intent of the E-Government Act and capitalizes the extraordinary advances in search technology including the way they crawl and index information preparing it for retrieval over the Internet,' said an OMB official, who requested anonymity. 'To say that this policy 'only' requires agencies to post information ignores the great advances in search technologies over the past two or so years and the considerable ongoing research.'

In the guidance, Johnson said that agencies might be meeting some of these requirements already. Agencies must:

  • Organize and categorize information intended for public use and ensure it is searchable across agencies. This includes publishing information directly to the Web, and performing advance preparation, such as taxonomies and ontologies.

  • Review the performance and results of your information dissemination program to identify gaps in meeting new or existing user needs, and take corrective action.

  • Publish your information resources management strategic plan on your Web site. The IRM plan will detail how the agency will meet new and existing information dissemination requirements, the results of the agency's program review and the plan to reduce gaps. It also would discuss how the agency would use the taxonomy or ontology.

These three steps do not include any of the ICGI's recommendations, the federal official said. The ICGI defined what categorizable information is, suggested searchable identifiers such as handles or the Uniform Resource Name, and said agencies should use ISO standard 23950 for interoperable search.

'Libraries have been doing this for 100 years and agencies been doing this for many years,' McDermott said. 'Agencies need to do some serious cross walking using common standards and build on those efforts that were quite successful in government. They don't have to catalog to the level that libraries do, but have to do more than they are doing now and that the policy calls for.'

The OMB official said the administration did consider the ICGI's recommendations, but found them 'unnecessarily complex and too costly for agencies to implement and sustain over time.'

Agencies still are trying to understand the policy. A Government Printing Office spokeswoman said the agency is discussing the guidance with OMB.

Johnson also identified three ways for the new DRM to help agencies meet the three requirements. The DRM could help agencies:

  • Determine how data is created, maintained, accessed and used

  • Define data and describe relationships between mission and program performance and information resources to improve the efficiency of mission performance

  • Define data and describe relationships among data elements used in the agency's and others information systems.

In addition to this guidance, OMB and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are developing guidance for sharing terrorism information as required under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

The policy comes at the same time as OMB released the results of responses from industry and government on a request for information on how to improve government search technology.


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