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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.

GAO to do some OTA work

On Jan 29, The Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced the launch of a new Science, Technology Assessment and Analytics (STAA) team to provide Congress with "thorough and balanced analysis of technological and scientific developments that affect our society, environment, and economy." GAO had announced its intention to set up this new STAA team back in December of 2018.

This new team will, apparently, serve some of the same functions that The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) once served.

The Office of Technology Assessment was created by Congress in 1972 (2 USC 472) "within and responsible to the legislative branch." Its stated purpose was "to provide early indications of the probable beneficial and adverse impacts of the applications of technology and to develop other coordinate information which may assist the Congress." The idea was that Congress did not want to rely on think tanks or the Executive Branch agencies for an understanding of complex scientific issues. But, in 1995, Congress simply stopped funding OTA. (For background see, Science and Congress, by Adam Keiper.) OTA documents are archived by the University of North Texas Libraries at the CyberCemetery.

Since at least 2009, there have been attempts to fund OTA again. There has been some recent speculation that Congress might be more amenable to letting GAO take on the role that OTA once had. (GAO is "an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.") Indeed, GAO has been offering technology assessments since at least 2002. In GAO’s announcement, they say that they routinely provide analysis of how federal agencies manage and employ science and technology, such as regenerative medicine, 5G wireless communication, and quantum computing.

GAO says that the new STAA team will expand its support to Congress by:

  • Conducting technology assessments and providing technical services
  • Auditing science and technology programs and initiatives to assist in oversight of federal investments in research, development, and advanced manufacturing
  • Compiling and utilizing best practices in engineering sciences, including cost, schedule, and technology readiness assessments
  • Establishing an audit innovation lab to explore, pilot, and deploy new advanced analytic capabilities, conduct research in information assurance, and explore emerging technologies that will impact future audit practices.

See also:

At launch, GAO combined existing in-house technology staffers and experts for STAA. But Persons said GAO will make outside hires, taking advantage of direct hire authority for technical positions and the Intergovernmental Personnel Authority, which allows government agencies to offer term appointments to academics and researchers at universities and nonprofits.

Breaking down the Department of the Interior’s proposed changes to FOIA. COMMENTS DUE 1/28/2019

Russ Kick of AltGov2 is again on the FOIA case. This time he’s analyzed the Department of Interior’s proposed changes to their FOIA regulations (and helpfully cobbled together the current regulations with DoI’s proposed changes). Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019. Here’s the current regulations and the proposed rules changes posted to regulations.gov.

Here’s my own take on this. Department of Interior’s reason for updating its FOIA regulations is that they’ve had “Exponential increases in requests and litigation.” From Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to FY 2018, incoming FOIA requests to the Department increased 30 percent (from 6,428 to over 8,350). So it would make sense that they’d want to update their regulations to deal with the exponential increase in requests. But instead of requesting more staff to deal with the increase in requests or look for ways to proactively release more records, their proposed changes:

  1. look to expand the definition and reasoning of “burdensome” requests that can be denied. “The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”
  2. place monthly limits on the number of requests per month from frequent requesters.
  3. Make it more confusing and difficult to submit requests (eg it’s unclear whether requests will be accepted via email in the new regs).
  4. No longer refer or forward mistakenly directed requests. “A request to a particular bureau or a particular bureau component (for example, a request addressed to a regional or field office) will be presumed to seek only records from that particular bureau or particular component and will not be forwarded to another bureau or component.”
  5. Change “time limits” to “time frames,” making the time to fulfill requests more squishy and undefined.

There’s probably more buried in this request. Check out Russ’ analysis at MuckRock. And PLEASE send comments to Department of Interior about their proposed changes. Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019.

The Department of the Interior wants to drastically change how it deals with Freedom of Information Act requests. To do that, it had to make a proposal, published in the Federal Register, that the public can comment on for 30 days. In theory, it has to consider this input before finalizing any changes to its FOIA regulations.

That proposal was published on December 28th, 2018, which is 1) a Friday 2) in the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day 3) during a government shutdown. Any one of those is a tried-and-true way to slip something past the public, but all three simultaneously? That is the trifecta of bureaucratic underhandedness.

So, now that the holidays are behind us for another year, let’s take a look at Interior’s FOIA wishlist, which is primarily designed to hobble requesters and solidify the department’s power. (To make it easier to see the many changes Interior wants, I’ve created a redline version of their currently FOIA regulations, with added language in bold and deletions in strikethrough, which you can see here.)

via Breaking down the Department of the Interior’s proposed changes to FOIA • MuckRock.

How the shutdown is affecting flow of government information

Two things to note this morning as the government shutdown continues.

  1. A lot of government information is being affected. Examples:
  2. But, a lot of information was in the pipeline and is still being released. Gary Price has one of his excellent roundups of reference resources (Recently Published or Updated Data-Rich Reports Available on the Web) over at InfoDocket. Many of these are government documents including: Federal Justice Statistics, 2015-2016, Union Membership in the United States 2018, Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care, and more.

GPO Gets OAIS Certification!

Congratulation to GPO for getting govinfo.gov certified as a Trusted Digital Repository! This is an important step for ensuring long term preservation and access to the contents of the GPO digital repository. The Government Publishing Office (GPO) announced today that it has received this certification.

(For those unfamiliar with certification, check out the “core criteria for digital preservation repositories” that four preservation organizations wrote in 2007. These are a consensus guide auditing and certifying repositories and will give you a general idea of the concepts of certification.)

The certification was awarded to GPO by PTAB (The Primary Trustworthy Digital Repository Authorization Body). This was the second certification completed by PTAB and the first in the United States.

PTAB used the international standard known as ISO 16363, Audit And Certification Of Trustworthy Digital Repositories. This is the newest and official version of the standard also known as OAIS ("The Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System"). (The standard is available for free from CCSDS and for a fee from the International Organization for Standards ISO.)

PTAB is accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Certification Bodies of India (NABCB) to conduct ISO 16363 audits worldwide utilizing ISO standard 17021 (Requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of management systems) (freely available from CCSDS).

PTAB uses a two stage ISO 16919/17021 audit process.

Waiting for details…

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Government shutdown causing information access problems

Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).

Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.

Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)

There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.

Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.

Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.

This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”

The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.

Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.

This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.

When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.

Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.

Authors:
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University

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