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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.

With Inspectors General firings in the news, Congress introduces bill to protect them

Inspectors General are a little known unit within many federal agencies. They were set up in the 1970s to “identify waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government.” Their reports can be found on Oversight.gov as well as the non-governmental website Oversight.garden (there is some duplication between the sites, but the garden also posts some unreleased IG reports). Though IG reports fall within the scope of the FDLP, many of these reports have historically fallen through the cracks — they’re a goldmine of fugitive documents for anyone interested in reporting them to GPO to collect and catalog, but that’s a whole other story.

While these offices normally conduct independent audits and investigations and make recommendations to fix waste, fraud and abuse well below the radar of the public, lately they’ve been in the news as the Trump Administration has fired or sidelined several IGs for highly political reasons — notably including the Intelligence Community IG, the State Department IG, the Acting Transportation Department IG, the Acting Health and Human Services IG, and the Acting Pentagon IG who was chosen to serve as the head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee created by Congress on March 27, 2020.

The administration’s actions has brought Congress — historically very supportive of IGs — to a boiling point, with a new bill introduced H.R. 6668: Inspectors General Independence Act of 2020 to “amend the Inspector General Act of 1978 to require removal for cause of Inspectors General, and for other purposes.” This is surely an issue which every depository librarian will want to keep an eye on.

To learn more about these little known but important internal watchdogs embedded in many executive agencies, check out this report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) entitled “THE WATCHDOGS AFTER FORTY YEARS: Recommendations for Our Nation’s Federal Inspectors General” (published July 9, 2018). POGO also more recently produced the really informative youtube video below.

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New GPO IG report includes troubling findings regarding fugitives and FDLP

“although the exact number of USDA publications could not be determined, the amount would be a small percentage because GPO focuses most of its efforts on congressional publications.”

We just came across this recent report of the GPO Inspector General (IG) called “Additional Information Needed for Ensuring Availability of Government Information Through the Federal Depository Library Program” (archived copy). Though this report was published the week before the recent Fall ’17 Depository Library Conference, it was not mentioned at all at conference, though there was information within the report which would have been incredibly useful for the Title 44 discussion held over the bulk of the first 2 days of conference.

There were some positives mentioned in the report. For example, I hadn’t known that GPO and the Library of Congress are currently working on a project to develop new strategies for increasing discovery and access to Government information across federal agencies. the project’s goals are to identify “top-level agency stakeholders in agency publishing,” make agencies aware of their Title 44 responsibilities and work on preservation policies for agency publications and especially born-digital materials.

Additionally, according to GPO, the approach it takes in finding agency publications is a “proactive” one. In general, the approach consists of: 1) providing a web presence and means for agencies to notify GPO of published documents; 2) directly contacting agency representatives, 3) reaching out to agency customers, and 4) web harvesting.

Key findings:

  1. “Some” Agencies Did Not Provide List of Publications to GPO, as Required (my quotes, the report did not specify a number.)
  2. GPO Policies and Procedures Need to be Detailed to Support Program Goals
  3. Strengthening Processes that Capture Government Publications

Although the GPO Inspector General “consider[s] management’s comments responsive to the three recommendations, which are considered resolved but will remain open until implementation of the proposed corrective actions,” we’re disturbed by some of the IG’s findings, especially in regard to the seeming nonchalance of GPO toward executive agency fugitive documents in general and the USDA in particular.

Though GPO has a supposedly “proactive” approach to capturing government publications, it seems that an inordinately large amount of executive publications are not made available to the FDLP, or otherwise collected, described or preserved (see the IG report’s analysis of USDA). Their Web harvesting program only has 6 Web archived USDA publications. And their outreach to agency customers is woefully inadequate as it seems from this report that very few agencies — or even the federal librarians working in those agencies! — are aware of their Title requirements, OMB Circular No. A-130, and other governing compliance requirements, have been contacted by GPO staff or even know that GPO exists. Case in point, on page 10 of the report, the Chief Collection Development Librarian for the U.S. National Agricultural Library had “identified and provided OIG with a list of 3,299 publications he believed should be included in the FDLP. The Librarian told us the information was not provided to GPO and that GPO had not contacted the Library for a list of issued publications.”

On a side — equally disturbing — note, we also found that a) none of the GPO IG’s investigation outcomes and only a very small percentage of the audits are available online; b) only the GPO IG’s semiannual reports to Congress are available on the new Oversight.gov site whose tagline is “all federal Inspector General reports in one place;” and c) even more worrying, NONE of them are cataloged in the CGP though they are hosted on GPO’s Website and presumably are within the scope of the FDLP. It seems like a no-brainer for ALL GPO IG REPORTS to be hosted on govinfo.gov in the GPO Collection.

We hope that GPO will be taking all necessary steps to implement the proposed corrective actions laid out by the IG. We will be sending this post and the IG report to Depository Library Council in the hopes that DLC can stress to GPO the ongoing importance of both digital and physical collection development activities to libraries and the public.

“Congress established the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) to provide free public access to Federal Government information. Creation, distribution, retention, and preservation of information has evolved from a simple tangible, paper-based process to now include digital processes managed primarily through various information technologies. Regardless of format, FDLP publications must conform to the definition of Government publications as defined in section 1902, title 44 of the United States Code (44 U.S.C. § 1901), GPO policy, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-130, that is, generally all published Federal information products, regardless of format or medium, that are of public interest or educational value or produced using Federal funds.

The transition to digital information raises a number of issues resulting in more diverse responsibilities for GPO. In that context, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted a review to determine the steps GPO took for ensuring information developed at the expense of taxpayers was made available to the public through the FDLP. To address our objective, in general, we tested compliance with select sections of Title 44, reviewed program goals and achievements, and tested processes used to capture Government publications at a select agency—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).”

Public Printer at House Oversight Comm: “GPO – Issues and Challenges: How Will GPO Transition to the Future?”

On Weds May 11, 2011, Public Printer Bill Boarman and others submitted written testimony to a hearing of the Committee on House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight (PDF). the hearing was titled “GPO – Issues and Challenges: How Will GPO Transition to the Future?” Here’s the GPO press release about the Public Printer’s comments (anyone else wish GPO put out their press releases in xhtml rather than pdf?! It’s hard to find them after the fact! but I digress). (Unembeddable) Video of the hearing is also available.

Witnesses:

  • William J. Boarman, Public Printer of the United States, Government Printing Office
  • James Hamilton Group Director, InfoTrends
  • Eric D. Belcher, President and Chief Executive Officer, InnerWorkings, Inc.
  • Eric Petersen, Specialist in American National Government, Congressional Research Service

Full disclosure: I talked last week with Reynold Schweikhardt, Director of Technology Policy for the Committee on House Administration — Mr Schweickhardt was organizing the hearing — in preparation for the hearing and to discuss with him some of the issues surrounding GPO, the FDLP and access to govt information in the 21st century.

I shared with him a few pieces that my FGI colleagues and I had written over the last several years to help inform the hearing and future discussions about the GPO and govt information in general. Among them are:

“Printing” seems to be a big issue these days — witness the recently introduced bills H.R. 1626: Prevent the Reckless, Irresponsible, Needless Typography (PRINT) Act of 2011 and S 674: Congressional Record Printing Savings Act of 2011 — and printing was discussed at the hearing. Yes, “printing” is (mostly) no longer necessary (and mostly no longer done) — though it remains a far better mode of access for many publications (Statistical Abstract is a case in point ) — but the role of “producing standard, preservable, authentic information output” still exists and remains critical to an informed citizenry. Drastically defunding GPO because of no need for printing would be throwing out the baby (standard preservable authentic information production) with the bathwater (printing press).

I stressed in our dialog that GPO’s role hasn’t changed, just the means. It’s far cheaper to fund one agency that partners with libraries and provides valuable services to other agencies than to defund that agency, lose the distribution/service/access/preservation that libraries do largely w/o federal dollars, and face the same information budget issues agency by agency — and the increasing expenditure requests at every agency. Every congressional district has a stake in maintaining funding for gpo/fdlp and should be supportive of the public service that libraries provide to their constituents.

It’s also important to note GPO’s critical role in cataloging government information regardless of format or FDLP status and the role PURLs play in reducing link rot. Even if printing vanished tomorrow, there is a real need for the active management of description of federal resources, and this is something that only a couple of agencies other than GPO do — OSTI is one that comes to mind.

In the end, I think a strong argument can be made that 1) GPO is a vital piece of the govt information ecosystem; and 2) GPO should be a focal point within govt for distributing govt information out to the public and to libraries; 3) the issues of digital preservation are too large for GPO to do alone and libraries, as they have done historically, can and should play an active role in access to and preservation of govt information. Libraries and librarians hopefully will continue to have a key role to play in govt information and transparency processes.

That is all.

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