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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.

Harmonizing libraries and e-government by combining services and collections

To me, it is odd, or at least ironic, that the library government information community has been studying and debating the same issues about the digital future of the FDLP for almost 20 years, without any clear resolution. I was reminded of this today when I got a request for a copy of a very brief letter to the editor of Government Information Quarterly that James and Shinjoung and I wrote five years ago. I realized that we never posted that letter here on FGI. So, today, we do so.

The letter we wrote was in response to this article by John Shuler and others in GIQ about “harmonizing” FDLP with e-government:

In that article, Shuler et al. briefly referred to two articles written before and in the very early days of FGI: our 2001 article in American Libraries and our 2005 article in Journal of Academic Librarianship.

The key points we made in those articles remain valid today. Nine years before Shuler wrote about e-government, we wrote that “The boundary between government publications and government services will blur and become difficult to define” and enumerated the problems of relying solely on the government to provide long-term free public access to government information. Before Shuler wrote about trying to “harmonize” libraries with e-government services, I wrote about how services and collections remain intrinsically connected. In 2014, when Shuler and colleagues expressed surprise that we lost access to information during a government shutdown, we pointed out that this is precisely what we had predicted for years and that there is difference between information and service. More recently, we have written about about the difference between citizens and customers, how pointing is not the same as collecting, and how born digital government information poses the real, unaddressed challenge of the digital era.

Here, then, is the complete text of our letter in response to Shuler’s 2010 article.

The authors of “Implications of harmonizing the future of the federal depository library program within e-government principles and policies” (Government Information Quarterly, 27:1) grossly mischaracterize articles that we co-authored and, by implication, they mischaracterize positions that others in the FDLP community have advocated for more than a decade.

The authors claim that we argue for “no changes in the program.” The opposite is true and the mischaracterization is worth noting because it is one of many examples of the authors confusing library roles (what we do – build collections and provide services for and stewardship of those collections) with library procedures (how we do it). The authors speak dismissively of “physical” collections as if libraries can only build collections of physical objects.

While they mention the need to preserve digital information and note the difficulty of preserving transaction-based services of e-government, they fail to see that the underlying data that drive those services should be deposited in depository libraries in open-formats, so that it can be preserved, used, re-used, and re-purposed by libraries and their user-communities.

They offer no vision of new, robust digital collections that combine selected government information with digital information from other sources to provide specific user-communities with unique, rich, tailored information environments. They also fail to mention any connection between collections and services.

The gist of the article is that libraries need to “align,” “reconcile,” or “harmonize” their practices with emerging e-government initiatives. Few will disagree with this or find anything new in the authors’ suggestion that we need to modernize our services and use the internet. Unfortunately, the authors do not explain what this might mean, how it might work, or even how library services might be different from or complement rather than duplicate e-government services.

The authors seem to want to change the role of libraries, by dropping collections, and preserve the procedures of providing reference service.

We want to preserve the mission of providing services based on curated collections and adapt the procedures to the digital environment. We envision serving user-communities that no longer have to be geographically-based. We will continue to examine the issue of an expanded, modern, digital FDLP at freegovinfo.info.

James R. Jacobs
James A. Jacobs
Shinjoung Yeo

Survey says most Americans not yet keen on e-government services

A new survey says that less than half of American adults who use the Internet at least once a week want the federal government to dive deeper into digital service delivery.

The survey, by Forrester Research, also notes that most respondents preferred using postal mail or a phone to interact with agencies and that Facebook, mobile apps and Twitter were less popular. Respondents also evoked privacy concerns with only 35 percent trusting government agencies to keep their personal information private. Respondents also did not find federal websites user friendly: less than half said that they tend to get what they came for when visiting agency websites.

Some of this may be due to unfamiliarity. The report says: “Our data shows that many people don’t want new digital channels because they don’t understand the advantages.” But 40 percent of respondents said they are overwhelmed by the plethora of agency websites and a majority said they are in favor of the government creating a single Web portal that would allow a user to log in to all federal accounts in one place.

See also:
E-Gov: are we citizens or customers?
Information is not a Service, Service is not Information

Information is not a Service, Service is not Information

John Shuler and his colleagues comment on the effects of the recent government shutdown on information access in this GIQ editorial:

  • E-government without government, John A. Shuler, Paul T. Jaeger, and John Carlo Bertot. Government Information Quarterly (In Press, Corrected Proof) DOI: 10.1016/j.giq.2013.11.004 [subscriber access required].

The authors rightly point out that the shutdown caused an interruption of “services and transactions,” and that: “for e-government to function, you actually need a government that functions.” This is, of course, true whether the government services are online (applying for social services, signing up for Medicare) or physical (access to museums, parks, and monuments). That government services require a functioning government is not a new insight, nor is it unique to digital services. It is, in fact, so obvious that it should go without saying. Alas, we live in a time when this kind of thing needs to be pointed out to politicians, citizens, and, apparently, to librarians.

In making this observation, however, the authors also conflate two very different concepts in a way that obscures another lesson that we should gather from the government shutdown. They conflate government information, which is a resource, with e-government, which is a service that uses government information. Resources are not services and services are not resources and conflating them confuses the issues of access, preservation, and the different roles of government information producers and libraries in the digital age.

E-government is a service. It is like the gate at a national park. The park is a resource and the gate is a service that protects the resource and provides access to it — but is not the resource itself. When the government controls the only gate and then closes it, the park becomes inaccessible — even though the park is still there.

Government information is a resource, like a national park. When the government controls the resource by keeping it in its own information silos and allowing access only through its gates, we can lose access to the information just as easily as we can lose access to a national park — even though the information is still there.

But information resources are special — in a good way. Librarians should be the first to understand that information does not have to be locked into a single silo and controlled by a single government gate. Information can be copied and used, and re-used, and re-purposed, and re-mixed. Libraries can provide different kinds of services than the government does. The nature of information as a resource is such that this can be done without causing damage or overuse to the resource or to other service providers. Economists call these kinds of resources “non-rivalrous,” which means that we can all make use of them without anyone having to give them up, and “non-excludable” because it is actually impractical to stop everyone from making use of the item. Resources that are both non-rivalrous and non-excludable are called “pure public goods” [Suber]. What a perfect description of government information!

Shuler and colleagues miss the larger issue when they identify the shutdown of e-government as the cause of the loss of e-government information, the loss of the ability to search for government materials, the loss of information access and dissemination, and as causing researchers to suspend their studies. These losses and interruptions were real, of course, but they were not caused by the government shutdown and they should not have been “unexpected” as the authors claim they were. The loss of government services were caused by the shutdown, but the loss of access to government information became inevitable and predictable (Jacobs, Jacobs, and Yeo; Peterson, Cowell, and Jacobs) when libraries ceded to the government their own responsibility for making government information available. When FDLP libraries decided to rely on the government as the sole provider of preservation and access, they lost their ability to control what would be preserved, what access would be provided when and at what cost, and what would be withdrawn, corrupted, altered, or lost.

Under these circumstances two things are entirely predictable.

First, information (resources) that the library and its community values will be lost, corrupted, withdrawn, and altered. We know this because this has always been true, even before the digital age. See Less Access to Less Information By and About the U.S. Government for repeated examples of government control of information. The reasons for these kinds of losses of access need not be nefarious or political or even intentional. As recently as this weekend, for example, we saw US court websites go offline due to technical problems. Regardless of the cause or intent, we know that this will happen and, when there is only one gatekeeper, the events will always affect everyone’s access to the resource.

Second, as long as libraries cede control of information, they will have no control over these events: they will have no collections — no resources — to control.

This is a problem for libraries and denying that it exists, getting angry about it, bargaining with Congress to please not do it again, and getting depressed will not help. But libraries do not have to ask the government to solve this problem or ask for permission to solve the problem. The solution to the problem of access to government information resources is within the grasp of libraries today. The solution is to accept that libraries can fix this problem by returning to their traditional roles of selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information, and providing access to and services for that information. Government services may be interrupted, but that is no reason for library services to be interrupted when libraries can have their own copy of the resource.

e-Government Services and library services. Just to be clear: there will always be online government services that libraries cannot duplicate. For example, those that do not use public information (e.g., filing your tax return) and those that provide public information in real-time or near-real-time (e.g., “How big was the earthquake I just felt?”). But there will also always be troves of government information (e.g., databases like The Census of Population and Housing, individual reports such as GAO reports, and whole collections of information from different agencies about a subject, or region, or information of a particular type or information aimed at a particular community) that libraries can choose to select, acquire, organize, and preserve for their own community.

When libraries do this, they will be able to do more than replicate a government service or provide a mirror of a government web site. When libraries build their own digital collections they can free the information from the constraints (legal, technical, economic, political) imposed on agencies that produce that information. Libraries can combine information from government and non-government sources and organize it into collections that address the needs of their communities. Libraries can create user-interfaces and APIs that make it easier for users to discover information that best matches their needs and make it easier for them to acquire and use that information in the ways that best match their workflows. When libraries do this, they can insulate their user communities from the effects that Shuler and colleagues describe.

Libraries can preserve information (resources) and ensure their users will have it even when government gates (services) are closed, whether those closures are caused by a government shutdown, or a politically-driven removal of information, or changes in priorities, or any other reason.

Those who continue to suggest that libraries should provide services without collections, or have collections without services will continue to be frustrated when those who do have collections and who control those collections close the gates, or impose new fees, or limit access, or impose use-restrictions. When the next big shutdown or small loss-of-access occurs and you are tempted to say that it is inconceivable that we could lose access to such important resources, I can only say, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

See also:

For more on e-government services, see Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year.

For more on the essential link between collections and services, see Federal Depository Library Program: Services and Collections.

Endnotes


Jacobs, James A., and James R. Jacobs, and Shinjoung Yeo. Government Information in the Digital Age: The Once and Future Federal Depository Library Program. 2005. Journal of Academic Librarianship, v.31 n.3 (May 2005) pp198-208 .


Peterson, Karie and Elizabeth Cowell and Jim Jacobs. Government Documents at the Crossroads 2001. American Libraries v.32 n.8 (Sept 2001) p.52-55.


Suber, Peter. 2009. Knowledge as a public good. SPARC Open Access Newsletter, Issue #139 (November 2, 2009)

Reflections on the end of a year and the beginning of a new year

 

James and I were both impressed to see that MLIS student Crystal Vicente posted a link on govdoc-l to her paper about the effects on government information of the government shutdown. It is great to see library students addressing the issues that confront the future of government information. We’d like to see more students posting their papers to promote engagement between students and practioners. [Note: the link to Vicente’s paper has changed. Here is the correct link (as of 4/4/14) to Online electronic government information and the impact of the government shutdown on public access.]

Ms. Vincente’s paper prompted us to reflect on the issues that face government information and FDLP libraries. As we end the year and begin a new one, we offer these reflections on some of the big issues that still face us.

  1. e-government. We think it is important for librarians to differentiate between “e-government” and information dissemination by the government. The two terms may overlap in common usage, but we think it is useful to draw a distinction between e-government, which is a service that uses government information and the information itself. We think it is useful to distinguish between interactions (or transactions) with the government (which is two-way communication) and the government disseminating information (which is one-way communication, an instantiation of the government’s work and processes).E-government and the provision of information services by the government on the web will surely increase over time and this is a very important thing to monitor and evaluate, but we believe that librarians need to pay even closer attention to the (public) information that the government gathers, assembles, and creates and then uses to create such services.
     

    A citizen might go to a government web site and submit a form to find out the current population of their city or the phone number for their Representative or the current laws or regulations on a subject. This is an e-government information service driven by government information. Will the government preserve and make that information available after it is “out of date” or when it is not popular enough to warrant a full-fledged service? This isn’t hypothetical: we have already seen the Census Bureau remove whole Decennial Censuses — one of the biggest, most important collections of government information, from its American FactFinder service and announce its intention of continuing to do so as new data become available. (See: American FactFinder, American FactFinder Communications,AFF2 Expansion and Legacy Sunset, and The Future of the Decennial Census: Where is it Going?, and IASST-L For users of the US Census Bureau’s American Factfinder: that “include archived products” checkbox does nothing, officially.)

    Services may come and go, but the information itself needs to be preserved, and free access to it and services for it will need to be provided for the long term — regardless of the short-term services the government provides with that information.

    The data behind such e-government information services can be (and, in our view, should be) acquired by libraries to ensure its long-term preservation and availability. In some cases, this will be more like acquiring databases than acquiring static documents — a task which has its own challenges, but is not without precedent. (See the long history of relations between ICPSR and libraries in the preservation of social science data and delivery of data services, and and the current trend for libraries to be involved in “data management.”) E-Government initiatives are less likely to worry about long-term, life-cycle data preservation and access since many (most?) focus instead on currency of information and responses to individual queries. As we see more e-government services (such as healthcare.gov and online facilities for applying for driver’s licenses, etc.), this will become an even bigger issue and the distinction between e-government transactions and the information behind such services will become even more important.

    E-government can also create a big impact and burden on library staff (most often, unfunded), but the instantiation of the workings of government has never been more at risk as we deal with the many issues and difficulties surrounding born-digital government information.

    The availability of e-government information services should be seen, not as an excuse for reducing library involvement in government information, but as evidence of the need for even more involvement in the long-term preservation of and access to information!

    (See also E-Gov: are we citizens or customers?)

  2. the single source problem. Although the recent government shut-down was a very visible and extreme reminder of the problems of relying on a single source for any information, complete shut-downs are not the only source of problems. When we rely on a single source for creation, preservation and access to information, any decision made by that single source can potentially affect the availability or accuracy of the information. (See, for example: When we depend on pointing instead of collecting and The Technical is Political). And when all we have to rely on is commercial sources for public information, it is a sign of the failure of libraries to do their job of ensuring long-term free public access to public information.
  3.  

  4. discovery. The issue of information discovery is different from, but connected to, these other issues. When we rely on a single information provider (such as GPO or an information agency like BLS), we are limited to their interface and discovery tools and their choices of what to deliver and how. We are also limited by the “stove-piping” of information into silos. But, if libraries build collections along subject and discipline and user-community lines (instead of provenance or agency lines), one result will be new ways to discover and get information and new ways to combine information from government sources and non-government sources in ways that work better for users and that the government itself cannot do.
  5.  

  6. authenticity. The question of authenticity is not a technical problem, though technology can help. The thing that makes it hardest for information to be forged or altered or damaged is replication with trusted parties. (See LOCKSS Preservation Principles and Who do you Trust? The Authentication Problem).
  7.  

  8. fugitives. We all know that fugitive documents are an issue, especially as agencies publish more and more of their information online and outside of the traditional FDLP. We would hope that in 2014 and beyond, the community will put more energy toward fugitives. We need to collectively figure out which agencies are best and which are worst at complying with Title 44. We need to identify the current community activities that deal with fugitives (see, for example, Lost Docs), and gaps where more needs to be done. This also relates to the above issue of e-government services that provide short-term access to information, but that do not instantiate it for long-term preservation and access.
  9.  

  10. bottlenecks. We should also explore what bottlenecks to access exist besides government shutdowns. This gets into the areas of government secrecy, less access to less information territory, the digital divide, and the “information deluge.” We used to talk about “drinking from the firehose” — but the issue of finding the right information amidst too many google search results is becoming even more important. (Howard Rheingold calls this “crap detection.”) This affects librarians as well as the public. We need to select, describe, and preserve the information our communities need and then curate those collections and create digital tools and services and educational materials that will help our communities find and use the government information they need.
  11.  

  12. finding solutions. We believe that the the government information community needs to act in concert to develop solutions to digital information access and preservation. There are many possible solutions and they should all be explored. At FGI, we’ve long advocated for digital deposit to fend off the single point of failure issue (see When we depend on pointing instead of collecting), and FDL’s have put energy toward building digital collections (e.g. lockss-usdocs, archive-it, EEMs). But we think there are other avenues to explore besides the end-of-the-publication-cycle solutions. What about things like “adopt a federal agency” — where one or a group of FDL’s liaise with an agency to assure their publications and data make their way into the FDLP — FDLP libraries advocating to federal agencies that they get together to collaboratively build information architectures that facilitate preservation rather than obfuscate it etc? In other words, are there any beginning-of-the-information-lifecycle ideas that could be explored?
  13.  

  14. beyond docs…. Finally, how do the issues we’re dealing with in government information carry over and affect other library collections, services, and policies in general? To what extent is government information the canary in the library coal mine (see, e.g., What’s love got to do with it? further thoughts on libraries and collections #lovegate)?

 

There is plenty to work on! Here’s to a happy, healthy, collectible and preservable 2014!

— James and Jim

Thoughts on White House Digital Government Strategy

Building off of last week’s post on the Obama Administration’s new digital government strategy, I came across this analysis over at TechPresident: “White House Rolls Out New Plan for Digital Government”.


Among the changes called for in the plan:

  • Within six months, the Office of Management and Budget will release new government-wide standards for open data, content, and web application programming interfaces. Agencies will have another six months to make sure they are following those policies. They are also going to be asked to take two customer-facing online services and expose the information it delivers through APIs to “appropriate audiences,” meaning some set of developers will be able to build applications around them without necessarily working in close concert with the agency providing the data.
  • Agencies will be asked to publish ever more data through APIs and as structured data, which are the building blocks of modern web design and mobile-ready websites. The White House line on this is that it will also encourage outside developers to build new businesses on top of government data.
  • The General Services Administration will establish a Digital Services Innovation Center to work with agencies to modernize how they interact with citizens on the web.
  • The White House will begin releasing its own source code on GitHub and launch a “presidential innovation fellowship” program to bring developers from the private sector into government for six-to-12-month projects.
  • The federal government will work to develop “MyGov,” a prototype central hub for citizens to access all the services and information they’re looking for from government online.
  • Through programs like one intended to encourage small businesses to compete for government business, the White House will work to change IT procurement practices and cut down on the number of high-dollar, low-output contracts. Other procurement-related initiatives include a government-wide vehicle for mobile device and wireless service contracting and government-wide guidance on bring-your-own-device policies.
  • Data.gov, the federal repository for government data available online, will transition away from being a hub for data files and towards a central clearing house of government APIs that developers can incorporate into web applications.

Open government activists, including Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich and Clay Johnson, writer and former director of Sunlight Labs, expressed “meh” for the new plan.

While we’re excited that the White House is continuing to espouse the importance of open government principles, our concern is that the plan (PDF) does not address digital preservation or authenticity, two critical issues for librarians in guaranteeing long-term FREE access to government information — and issues we addressed in a 2010 letter to then deputy CTO for Open Government Beth Noveck.

It’s all well and good to talk about IT reform, shared IT infrastructure and services, APIs etc, but who’s going to manage all of this cool digital stuff for the long-term? And where will the funding (or RE-funding) come from to keep Data.gov afloat in order to manage all of the APIs? In an era where GPO’s FY2012 request for $6million to fund continuing development of their Federal Digital System (FDsys) is met with $0 funding by the House and only slightly less catastrophic $500,000 by the Senate, talk is all well and good. Digital infrastructure and services, and more importantly the staff to manage them, costs $$ — arguably much more $$ than distribution and preservation of paper collections in the FDLP. We need a government and politicians who won’t short-change open government and transparency. We need them and the public to realize that “online” does NOT equal “free beer” but “free kittens!”

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