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Agenda for Access
By Patrice McDermott

We are becoming an increasingly connected world. Getting information about a subject is as simple as getting on the Internet and doing a search. So it is surprising that even though the federal government does nursing home quality inspections, families cannot easily obtain information about nearby facilities. The same is true with bank inspections, food safety information, workplace hazards and accidents. And while the government makes information — about toxic releases in communities, about corporate filings, and census data — available through the Internet, there is no easy way, even with FirstGov, for the public to find this information. If citizens do find the information, they cannot find it linked together to allow them to address key issues, such as the siting of a facility in a community with large numbers of minority children.

Government leaders in recent years have both expressed and demonstrated interest in enhancing public access to government, but that interest has not translated into widespread agency practices. The reasons for this are not cost — public access costs are relatively small. They are not technological — an increasing number of people have access to the Internet and it is not very difficult to make government information available in searchable formats. The real reason is that there is no comprehensive plan for public access or even specific government-wide policies to guide agencies on use of the World Wide Web.

While some agencies have done great work in making information — from documents to data — publicly accessible, and have tried to comply with the spirit of right-to-know and freedom-of-information laws and regulations, these practices have not been uniform across the federal government. In fact, in most cases, public access is not a high priority and suffers.

To respond to this problem, OMB Watch launched a project, Agenda for Access, to engage those already concerned and enlist the larger community of nonprofit and governmental stakeholders to ascertain their perceptions of both problems with and opportunities to improve public access to federal government information. We had originally envisioned three phases to the A4A project:

  • Interviews/data gathering/development of a blueprint for public access.
  • Testing the ideas in the blueprint.
  • Launching a campaign to implement the ideas in the blueprint.

However, nearly every person with whom we spoke had a different vision of what a "blueprint" would be — and most questioned whether the report outline we circulated would significantly advance the debate over public access. Rather than proceed with the original plan, we used the advice and comments, including those from people working inside the federal government, to re-fashion the project to be more activist.

We have identified and are working with three types of target audiences:

Users: Those populations that use government information to reach and serve a broader audience, such as intermediary organizations (e.g., news media, nonprofits, libraries, businesses), the public, local, state, and federal government employees, and information policy experts.

Policy makers: Federal policymakers in primarily the executive and legislative branches, including those with management authority. Policymakers in the federal judicial branch will be a target as opportunities present themselves.

Implementers: Those with the responsibility to implement public access activities, from FOIA to Privacy officers, and from information technology staff (IT) to webmasters.

The project has two components. In each of these, we are working with each of the audiences identified above.

Information gathering
This component is complete. We have interviewed 111 individuals representing 76 organizations and have obtained policy input from a number of key players. The project also has an advisory panel that involves key stakeholders.

Education and constituency reinvigoration
Targeting users: The objective is to educate users about public access issues. Our definition of users primarily encompasses intermediary organizations, such as nonprofits, libraries, news media, and businesses that in turn reach the broader public. More specifically, our objectives are to:

  • Identify persistent problems in obtaining public access that cut across substantive issue areas. In 2001, our specific focus will be on environmental and health issues.
  • Build linkages among groups that care about improving public access.

To meet these objectives, we have:

  • Developed a case example from the J.F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board.

  • Finalized a report setting out the beginnings of a proactive agenda to support and expand the public’s right to know about threats to human health and the environment. This report will lay some of the groundwork for engaging other environmental, library and public interest organizations in right-to-know efforts.

  • Coordinated public interest community response and work on "Critical Infrastructure Information" initiatives in the executive branch and in Congress.

  • Coordinated public interest community response to a congressional initiative to criminalize the disclosure of any classified information to non-authorized persons.

Targeting policymakers: A secondary target audience are policymakers in the legislative and executive branch. In order to educate them on the importance of public access issues and major problems or hurdles that currently exist, we have developed materials on legal and regulatory authorities governing public access today. One report on public access features in major environmental statutes has been completed by U.S. PIRG. A second product describes the laws and regulations governing executive branch public access activities. To further meet these objectives, in the 2001 calendar year we plan to meet with policymakers one-on-one to continue discussing public access issues. This will be particularly important as reauthorization of the Paperwork Reduction Act is scheduled for 2001.

Targeting agency implementers: We have not put significant resources into targeting this audience during the education phase. OMB Watch released its update report on the implementation of the EFOIA amendments in December 1999, has testified on the implementation of FirstGov, and continues to work with Federal Information and Records Managers Council on records-management issues.

Patrice McDermott is the senior information policy analyst for OMB Watch.

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