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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

The Militarization of our Republic?

Government Executive posted an article on President Bush’s call for the creation of a “Civilian Reserve Corps” “…to ease the burden on the military…”. It was mentioned in his State of the Union address, Tuesday.

“Such a corps would function much like our military reserve. It would ease the burden on the Armed Forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them. It would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time. ”

There are many ways a person can serve his country. Federal Depository Librarians, for example. Or just an ordinary citizen taking up an issue, commenting on Rulemaking, and so on. Serving or supporting the military often is made out to be the primary way “to serve your country’ but it’s not. The military is just one of many –and certainly has the greatest sacrifice and risk. What would happen if we mobilized a “Citizen’s Government Oversight Corps”, asking people to serve 3-4 years engaging in executive and legislative branch activities?

I wonder if there are any implications of international military “law” involving civilians in harms way. If your adversary is using the tactic of terrorism, the theatre is anywhere. We already have a great deal of commercial interests involved in supporting military. This is just not enough, certainly in our present foreign adventures, and this initiative confirms our military’s lack of resources to accomplish all its aims (at the direction of the current executive). I wonder where this initiative will go and whether it is wise.

CRS Director Moves to Restrict Analysts’ Media Contacts

The FAS (Federation of American Scientists) blog on government secrecy posted an interesting article today on additional restrictions on CRS analysts’ contact with media representatives.

Supposedly, the new policy is being driven by CRS management fearing “that the agency may come to be perceived as having an institutional agenda of its own or that its impartiality will be questioned by members of Congress”.

That’s a legitimate concern, perhaps driven from wanting to manage their reputation and the quality of their work. But, the author of the FAS blog entry suggests the new policy may have a negative effect on the employees –which may affect the quality of their work after all.

Famous Last Words, 2006.

The Resource Shelf had an entry about “Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2006”, truthiness. This word is not new as it was voted the 2005 word of the year by the American Dialect Society.

My favorite new word for 2006 came from my work (I work for an aerospace company on a big defense program). A year-end communication from Program Management cautioned us to be wary of mosiacing our presentation content (read: Power Points) prior releasing them to the public. That is, we can’t just re-use content that had already been approved for public release; rather, anything and everything must be submitted to a public release process.

Mosiacing? Was April Fools day coming in December? At my first reading, and after I stopped laughing, I tried to make sense of what mosiacing was and what the authors of the memo had against using plain speech in their communication –instead of introducing this strange, unfamiliar word for a simple concept. I also wasn’t sure if they spelled mosiacing correctly. Could they mean mosaicing, with the “i” and the “a” reversed? And were they borrowing, re-purposing, a word used in a different context (in this case, art and design –as far as I can tell). And does the use of such a word help clarify the meaning of what they’re trying to say? Who knows. I doubt even the authors of the memo even know. The expressionationing of my truthiness over my confusionation to my management was high over their use of mosaicing. The use of the word mosaicing applied to public release of information also cannot be clarified by simple googling (another top word in 2006 according to M-W this year).

It seems making things ‘clear’ or to ‘clarify’ something is a recurring goal for governments, corporations, and big defense programs (my program spends over 3 billion a year). I come across statements about clarifying or making clear something very often in my work. In fact, my work is all about making things clear: I am a policy analyst and deal primarily with Department of Defense IT and information management policies. I read the policy documents (memorandum, DOD Instructions, Directives, etc.) and try to make clear to my managers what is important of those policies in relation to our program.

We strive for clarity: work statements have the word ‘clarity’ appearing often enough to be elevated to the status of a ‘power word’ –its concept has importance but no ‘clear’ way to attain it. It seems that just by saying we’re going to be clear, or say we intend to strive for clarity (suggesting that things are currently unclear and not moving toward clarity), we’ll somehow arrive at it, becoming, perhaps, a CMMI Level 5 of Clarity Maturity Organization (that’s a joke; there is no CMMI for Clarity that I know of).

Stating a goal of clarity but then getting the opposite result seems typical in all bureaucracies (government, corporate, and that weird hybrid, defense programs). I confess i have made statements like ‘we need to clarify the refinement of requirements’ or ‘our architectures are made to clarify user needs’ in my email and presentations. The 2006 report on government responses and preparation for Katrina, “Failure of Initiative” has a lot to say about clarity in language and intentions between government to government, and government to citizen.

Are we hopeless? I don’t think so. PlainLanguage.gov , started around 1994-95, defines ‘Plain Language’ as

Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:
• Find what they need;
• Understand what they find; and
• Use what they find to meet their needs.

In the world of digital government information, the kind I use and enjoy, I seem to get at all three of these bullet points: when I find what I need, it’s usually understandable and it usually meets my needs. In the corporate experiences I’ve had, the opposite is true. As corporations do more work in place of government (literally, doing the work of government for a fee), can initiatives like PlainLanguage.gov help? Perhaps. Certainly, a resource like it take us a long way.

The History News Network.

Although not a government info resource, this site may be of use to researchers, students, and teachers. George Mason University’s History News Network (HNN) features articles and excerpts by professional (scholarly?) historians.
The authors range from left, right, and center. The site’s motto is “Because the Past is the Present, and the Future too”. They describe their mission in part being

“(t)o expose politicians who misrepresent history. To point out bogus analogies. To deflate beguiling myths. To remind Americans of the irony of history. To put events in context. To remind us all of the complexity of history.”

The lead editor is Richard Shenkman of George Mason University, author of several books of history –notably “Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History”.

On the home page, there is a quick link to The September 11 Digital Archive. Recently, they’ve posted commentaries on the Iraq Study Group report.

The current Most Popular Article: Richard K. Neumann Jr.: “The Myth That “Eight Battleships Were Sunk” At Pearl Harbor“. The All-Time Favorite is “What Is the Difference Between Sunni and Shiite Muslims–and Why Does It Matter?” (written in 2002).

There is a good collection of links for students (like “What Books Are Helpful in Understanding 9-11?”) and for teachers .

PART and Expectmore.gov

One of the documents included in the president’s FY 2004 budget declared “…we are no closer to measurable accountability than in President Johnson’s day”(48). In the budget for that year, the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) showed how they were addressing this problem with something called the Program Assessment Rating Tool, or PART.

PART was initially developed in 2002 (from what I’ve been able to determine). By 2004, its performance rating assessments were growing in numbers of programs assessed and in influencing budgeting decisions.It is a questionnaire executed by the OMB and the agency whose program is being assessed. The questions are in weighted into four categories: Program Purpose & Design (20%), Planning (10%), Management (20%), Results (50%).

PART questions are designed for short answers and are to be accompanied with supporting evidence (or other details when applicable). Lack of supporting detail for an answer may result in a disfavorable score for a particular question. PART answers determine a program’s overall rating. An important objective of the PART assessment process is to help an agency develop an improvement plan for a program –which is then used to evaluate performance in subsequent evaluations. A PART assessment should help clarify a program’s purpose, design, planning, management, results, and accountability and help decision makers (and citizens) determine its overall effectiveness.

There are seven types of programs eligible for PART, including Direct Federal, Competitive Grant, Block/Formula Grant, and Capital Assets and Service Acquisition (like big-budget defense acquisitions). Programs were initially to be assessed every five years. The FAQ on the OMB page has more detail.

Citizens can get PART assessments from Expectmore.gov. The site was launched formally by the OMB in April of this year(the site was initially launched in February). By making assessments of Federal programs based on PART results available to the public, it is believed such public accountability for performance increases transparency and help us judge whether a program is using resources effectively.

Programs have two categories of ratings, “Performing” (broken down into three sub-categories of “Effective”, “Moderately Effective”, or “Adequate”) and “Not Performing” (as either “Ineffective” or “Results Not Demonstrated”). Currently, according to PART assessment results of about 800 programs,

  • 72% of Federal programs are “Performing”:
    • 15% of Federal programs are Effective (meaning these programs set “ambitious goals, achieve results, are well-managed and improve efficiency”).
    • 29% of Federal programs are Moderately Effective.
    • 28% of Federal programs are Adequate.
  • 28% of Federal programs are “Not Performing”:
    • 4% of Federal programs are Ineffective (meaning these programs have been judged to be “unable to achieve results due to a lack of clarity regarding the program’s purpose or goals, poor management, or some other significant weakness”). Some examples of “Ineffective” programs are the “EPA Ecological Research” and Amtrak .
    • 24% of Federal programs are Results Not Demonstrated. Includes those programs which were not able to collect adequate data.

The answers to PART questionnaires for an individual program are available on expectmore.gov. From the main page click on either “Show me the programs that are Performing” or “Not Performing”. These results you have to scroll thru as these query results are not downloadable to Excel for quicker sorting (however, you can get a dump of all programs, ratings, and recent funding information based on FY 2007 requests on the “Funding information for each program” link). Next, select a program and bring up its assessment page; at the bottom of the page is a “Learn More” link on the left and a “Assessment Details, Funding, and Improvement Plan” link to the right of that. Each assessment has a link to a “Program Performance Measures” and “Program Improvement Plans” (every program has an improvement plan regardless of its rating being “Effective” or “Not Effective”).