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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.

What You Need to Know about the New Discard Policy

GPO’s new Regional Discard Policy and GPO’s recent presentations about it are full of hopeful words and good intentions. We applaud GPO for having good intentions and high hopes, but we question if the Policy can meet those expectations.

Here is what you need to know about the Discard Policy. GPO’s caveats and assurances about the new policy aside, there will no longer be any Regional Depositories for documents more than seven years old. It removes the requirement that there be access paper copies of all documents in the FDLP. It weakens the FDL Program by continuing the shift of responsibility away from FDLP members and toward GPO. It does not increase flexibility (as advocates of the policy claim), it shifts flexibility away from Selectives and gives it to Regionals. It puts new burdens on Selective Depositories. It establishes a new model for the preservation of paper copies of documents that is undocumented, unproven, and risky. It ignores long-term implications in favor of short-term benefits to a few large libraries. It makes GPO’s “guarantee” of long-term, free access to government information nothing more than a hollow promise.

We believe that the Policy actually weakens the FDLP and damages both access and preservation. We believe that the Policy provides no guarantee of meeting those expectations, and will make it more difficult to do so. Below, we explain why.

Introduction of the Policy and its Implementation

At the Fall Depository Library Council (DLC) meeting, GPO gave a general outline of how it will proceed to allow Regional Depository Libraries to start discarding paper copy documents.1 GPO has, so far, provided the following information about the Policy itself and how GPO intends to implement the policy:

For additional background, links, and commentary, see: Information sharing and the National Plan by Shari Laster.

One definite Goal. Some questionable objectives.

The new policy has only one stated goal: To allow regional depository libraries the option to discard paper copies of government documents.2. To be clear, this is not a substitution of one format for another, like microfiche for paper. Regionals will not be required to uphold their Title 44 obligations to “retain at least one copy of all Government publications either in printed or microfacsimile form.” (44 U.S.C. §1912).

In addition to this specific goal, GPO has expressed a variety of objectives, which it apparently hopes the new policy will help accomplish. But GPO has been both inconsistent and vague in its expression of these objectives and how it will actually implement the policy.3 Six Regional Depositories will participate in a test of the policy in early 2016; presumably, this will produce more implementation details.

Some of GPO’s objectives (such as giving Regionals “the ability to expand their capability to serve the increasing number of remote users” [Vance-Cooks]) can be accomplished without the new policy.

Most of the objectives relate to giving Regionals the “flexibility” to discard paper copies of documents. GPO does not claim that this will have any positive effect for users. On the contrary, GPO acknowledges that regionals that are already relocating tangible collections to offsite storage are impairing the goals of the FDLP.4 GPO implies that Regionals will use resources that will be freed by discarding documents “to focus on the needs” of users of government information [Vance-Cooks]. But GPO does not specify what the resources are, or explain how it expects freed space to be reallocated to services or collections for users of government information, or require any such reallocation. Furthermore, some Regionals have admitted that any savings brought on by this policy will not go toward public service of government information, but will go toward their library’s central operating budget. Since the Policy does nothing to further such objectives, we should not read them as objectives of the Policy but as wishes of GPO.

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Having a Plan “B”

KR-403-forbiddenIn early August, FGI reported  on FDLP.gov being hacked as evidenced by a large cat looming over a night time cityscape. Subsequently the FDLP published an explanation dated August 19th why several FDLP websites were unavailable due to an ongoing internal security review.  By unhappy coincidence, my library had just uploaded a digitization project description to the Digitization Projects Registry: http://registry.fdlp.gov/.   Over a month later, we are still waiting for the registry page to become available in order to publicize our digitization project of a historic series of water supply reports from Natural Resources Conservation Service.   While I empathize with the GPO web managers and realize that government agencies offer big targets to hackers, this incident has also been a personal reminder of the importance of libraries having a plan “B” to insure continued access to digital resources.

UK’s Conservative party deletes archive of speeches from internet

The Guardian wrote yesterday, “Conservative party deletes archive of speeches from internet.” The Conservative Party has attempted to delete from their website — as well as from the Internet Archive! — all their speeches and press releases online from the past 10 years, including one in which David Cameron promises to use the Internet to make politicians ‘more accountable’.

This is troubling news, but something as old as politicians — see for example ALA’s long-running serial “Less access to less information by and about the US government” which ran from 1981 – 1998. But it should also come as yet another warning to librarians and archivists of the dire need to harvest and preserve government information and store content off of .gov servers.

The party has removed the archive from its public website, erasing records of speeches and press releases from 2000 until May 2010. The effect will be to remove any speeches and articles during the Tories’ modernisation period, including its commitment to spend the same as a Labour government.

The Labour MP Sheila Gilmore accused the party of a cynical stunt, adding: “It will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises and failure to stand up for anyone beyond a privileged few.”

In a remarkable step the party has also blocked access to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a US-based library that captures webpages for future generations, using a software robot that directs search engines not to access the pages.

The Tory plan to conceal the shifting strands of policy by previous leaders may not work. The British Library points out it has been archiving the party’s website since 2004. Under a change in the copyright law, the library also downloaded 4.8m domains earlier this year – in effect, anything on the web with a .co.uk address – and says although the Conservative pages use a .com suffix they will be added to the store “as it is firmly within scope of the material we have a duty to archive”. But the British Library archive will only be accessible from terminals in its building, raising questions over the Tory commitment to transparency.

Computer Weekly, which broke the story, pointed out that among the speeches removed were several where senior party members promised, if elected, to use the internet to make politicians accountable.

Another one bites the dust: Consolidated Federal Funds Report going away July 31, 2012

Happy friday 😐 The Consolidated Federal Funds Report will be going away. Census will still continue to host the 1995 – 2010 historic reports (for now!). According to their web site:

Due to the termination of the Federal Financial Statistics program, the Consolidated Federal Funds Report (CFFR) website, including the On-Line Query System, will be shut down on July 31, 2012. Historical CFFR data will be available by request or via a Census Bureau FTP site. Available files will include the U.S. and Individual States Combined, Individual State Files, accompanying reference files, and .pdf publication reports. In addition, the Federal Aid to States and Federal Expenditures by State historical .pdf publications will also be available by request or via a Census Bureau FTP site.

For questions regarding future access to these historical files, please contact the Governments Division – Education and Outreach Branch at [email protected]

What is the Consolidated Federal Funds Report and why is it so critical? Here’s Census’ description of the resource:

Data are obtained on the amount of virtually all Federal expenditures, including grants, loans, direct payments, insurance, procurement, salaries and wages and other awards (such as price supports and research awards). Data represent actual expenditures (or outlays) with some exceptions. For example, contract amounts may represent obligations, loans and insurance can include cash and contingent liability values, and grants to individuals may reflect benefit commitments. Expenditures are reported by responsible department or agency, and classified by affected program (such as Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster relief grants or Food and Nutrition Services Women Infants and Children (WIC) Program).

That’s a LOT of data that will soon disappear!

Great news! New Bill calls for CRS reports to be publicly available

This is great news indeed! The Sunlight Foundation reported today that the “Public Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Resolution of 2012” (aka H. Res 727) has just been introduced by Representatives Quigley (D-IL) and Lance (R-NJ) — many thanks to both of them.

The resolution would ensure that reports by Congress’s $100 million-a-year think tank will become available to the public on a website maintained by the House Clerk. Numerous good government groups and advocates for more congressional transparency — including FGI! — have endorsed the measure. Please contact your Representative and ask them to vote HELL YEAH! on H. Res 727.

The reports, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, are frequently cited by the courts and the media and requested by members of the public, but CRS does not release them to the public. Instead, they come to widespread attention after they are released in dribs and drabs by Congressional offices and painstakingly collected by researchers. Some are collected and sold for $20 a copy, while others are made available by non-profit organizations for public consumption. By the time they become publicly available, the reports can become outdated, especially when an issue is moving quickly in Congress.

Reliable access to CRS Reports would ensure that everyone has timely and comprehensive access to the collective wisdom of hundreds of analysts and experts on political issues when they’re at their most salient. This is already common practice in other support arms of the Congress, like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.

In the past CRS reports have been more widely available, but relatively recent CRS-imposed policies are increasing limiting access even as the Internet has made the documents easier to share. In fact, the original limitation on public access was imposed in the 1950s on CRS’s predecessor agency and arose from a concern about the costs of printing and mailing the reports — not their confidentiality. In the Internet age, this limitation no longer makes sense, especially as these reports are already available on CRS’s internal website in electronic form.

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