Washington Brief - March 2006

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By Mary Alice Baish

Dateline: January 18, 2006

Bumps Along the Road in Implementing the E-Government Act
One of our important legislative successes was the 2002 enactment of the E-Government Act (P.L. 107-347), legislation introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) to improve how agencies provide federal government information and services though the Internet. Unfortunately, the strong public access provisions that were in the original bill—including a definition of permanent public access that I had given his staff—were weakened substantively during the negotiation process with OMB. Nonetheless, its enactment was an important step forward toward ensuring the electronic life cycle management of web publications. In order to implement the Sec. 207 public access provisions, OMB created an Interagency Committee on Government Information and assigned three groups to make recommendations on metadata, web content and preservation. Each group was tasked with sending its recommendations to OMB by December 2004; OMB in turn had to issue final recommendations in December 2005.

Eliot Christian of the U.S. Geological Survey chaired the metadata group charged with determining how to categorize agency web documents for easy search retrieval. The group was asked to make specific recommendations on:

 

  1. the adoption of standards (that should be open to the maximum extent feasible);

     

  2. the definition of categories of government information which should be classified under the standards; and

     

  3. determining priorities and developing schedules for the initial implementation of the new standards by agencies.

His group issued its important recommendations to OMB in December 2004. Our first hint of possible trouble came in May 2005 when OMB announced that a draft Data Reference Model would provide the standard for making agency information searchable and interoperable across federal agencies. Last fall OMB issued a Request for Information in which they seemed to question whether it was cost effective for agencies to add metadata to their web content in order to improve search results. Couldn't agencies merely rely on robust search engines like Google rather than spend funds on adding metadata to their web-based digital publications?

We were therefore not completely surprised when OMB issued its final recommendations last month, advising agencies that, "When disseminating information to the public-at-large, publish your information directly to the Internet. This procedure exposes information to freely available and other search functions and adequately organizes and categorizes your information." We believe that this falls far short of both the spirit and the letter of the Sec. 207 provision of the Act, and we're exploring the possibility of asking Congress to respond to OMB and possibly convene a public hearing.

Whatever Happened to www.regulations.gov?
Unless Congress and OMB get their act together and agree on its future and how to fund it, we may soon be asking that very question. This e-rulemaking portal is one of OMB's early Federal Enterprise Architecture initiatives. In a somewhat parallel effort, Sec. 206 of the 2002 E-Government Act requires regulatory agencies to establish electronic dockets for online rulemaking in order to enhance public participation in the regulatory process. However, the Act does not require a single government e-rulemaking portal. EPA was named by OMB to be the lead agency in developing the electronic docketing portal, and Lockheed Martin was given the $98 M contract to build the system in 2003.

GRC member Barbara Brandon has followed the development of the portal with each new release, and you may have attended her excellent program about it last summer in San Antonio. Barbara provided comments during a House "Symposium on E-Rulemaking in the 21st Century" in December sponsored by the Judiciary Committee. It was attended by high-level agency officials involved in developing their agency's docket management system as well as many in the academic community who are involved in researching the policy and the technology behind e-rulemaking. Barbara explained that the new portal suffers from two significant operational problems. First, the latest release has resulted in lost functionality. The public could do a full-text search of any docket on EPA's earlier version of the site. The portal's designers deliberately preclude full text searching, except when the docket is currently open for comment. Second, Barbara noted that the site frequently times out search requests for large dockets before the docket index page opens.

Funding for the e-rulemaking portal comes from agency contributions mandated by OMB but that's been put on hold for now. The House committee report on the FY 2006 Treasury appropriations bill stalls funding for the portal and directs OMB to develop an operating plan and funding recommendations for 24-government-wide electronic initiatives, including the e-rulemaking portal. Hopefully this will allow for some thoughtful consideration of its future.

World Law Bulletin
AALL and the ABA's Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress joined forces recently in asking the leadership of the Joint Committee on the Library to grant the Law Library permission to make the World Law Bulletin broadly available to the public through the Internet. This excellent monthly publication produced by the Law Library's Directorate of Legal Research has high public interest value in today's global economic and legal environment.

Each issue provides a unique compilation of timely information about new legal developments, and covers dozens of countries as well as international entities such as the European Union, the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Bank. The well-indexed information includes both primary and secondary sources, and the articles include hotlinks to direct the reader quickly and easily to the source document. Very importantly, it provides links to primary source material accessible through the Law Library's Global Legal Information Network. We had excellent meetings with staff of Chairman Robert Ney (R-WV) in the House and Vice Chairman Stevens (R-AK) on the Senate side, and at this point, the outlook for success is very favorable. The AALL and the ABA have been working together for several years now to improve the visibility of the legal collections and services of the Law Library of Congress—and this would be a very positive step forward to that end.

Mary Alice Baish
Associate Washington Affairs Representative
Edward B. WIlliams Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-1417
202/662-9200 * FAX:202/662-9202
email:baish@law.georgetown.edu

 


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