What do you think of Congress.gov?

September 28, 2012

By Elizabeth

Last week, the Library of Congress (LC), U.S. Congress, and Government Printing Office (GPO) launched the new beta Congress.gov, which combines Congress’s internal LIS system with THOMAS and will eventually replace both systems. In the LC press release Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, “The new, more robust platform reaffirms for the 21st century Congress’s vision of a vital legislative information resource for all Americans,” calling the new site a reflection of “the Library’s commitment to Congress’s goal to open the legislative process to the American people and promote an informed democracy.”

There are several great new features on Congress.gov, including the homepage’s “Current Legislative Activities” feature which provides a snapshot of all that’s happening in the House and Senate. Unlike THOMAS, the new site also gives users with the ability to simultaneously search all content across all available years, with some files dating from the 93rd congress.

Still, there are areas for improvement in the new platform and while the site is in beta, it’s important that the Library hear feedback from legal researchers. We’ve already heard from a few law librarians that they would like to see an “advanced search” feature and easier-to-find links to authenticated bills and laws on FDsys.

What do you think of the site? What features would you like to see?

As many of you know, law librarians were critical in helping GPO develop FDsys; now it’s your opportunity to help the Library improve Congress.gov. As you explore Congress.gov, share your feedback with the Government Relations Office. We’ll collect your responses and share them with the Library.  Let us know!

Some Successes, Room for Improvement on E-Gov

September 20, 2012

By Elizabeth

Ten years after the passage of the E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347), a new GAO report finds federal agencies have yet to address key areas to improve citizen access to government information and services. While the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other agencies have taken significant steps to comply with the act—including releasing guidance, coordinating reporting, and assigning leadership responsibilities—further action is necessary.

As stated in the report, the E-Government Act of 2002 was “enacted to promote the use of the Internet and other technologies to improve citizen access to government information and services, improve government decision making, and enhance accountability and transparency.”  With the tenth anniversary of the act’s passage approaching, Congress asked GAO to assess OMB’s and agencies’ efforts to fulfill the act’s requirements on leadership and organizational responsibilities and evaluate agencies’ progress with the designated improvements.

GAO reports some progress, as agencies have implemented many federal products and processes to promote electronic delivery of government services and information. For example, the act required creation of the first central portal for government information, USA.gov. In addition, the act improved public access to the rule-making process through Regulations.gov (though AALL members raised concerns about the site). Agencies have also made strides in tracking customer satisfaction with federal websites and are integrating best practices for electronic government into their operations and policy guidance.  OMB and agencies have made it easier to access, use and preserve government information by organizing website content and implementing electronic records management, and have issued policies on protecting the privacy of individuals’ personal information on government websites.

Still, in order to fully support e-government and e-lifecycle management, agencies must make changes in several areas. The GAO’s chief criticism is that OMB and other agencies have not established sufficient metrics to track e-gov programs’ successes or their compliance with the law’s intent. Agencies were not required to report on all of the act’s provisions over the past decade. For instance, from Fiscal Year 2006 to Fiscal Year 2009, agencies did not have to report on how they enhanced public participation by electronic means for development and issuance of regulations. OMB has not detailed to Congress which provisions it’s not reporting nor has it given the reasons for excluding them.

Further, OMB has yet to establish a government-wide online repository for federally funded research and development projects that’s searchable by the public. Citizens can now access consolidated government information through sites such as Data.gov, which helps the public find, access, and download non-sensitive government data and tools in a variety of formats.  But while steps have been taken to improve transparency and participation through federal websites, GAO has raised concerns with the accuracy and reliability of this information.

In order to fully comply with the act, GAO recommends that in its annual report to Congress OMB identify which provisions have not been reported and why, establish a federal research and development repository and website, and issue guidance on agency participation in this site. AALL helped to formulate the language of the E-Government Act of 2002 and has been an active proponent of the increased transparency and privacy requirements the act requires. We support the recommendations of GAO to OMB and encourage OMB and all agencies to take the steps necessary to fully comply with the e-government requirements.

Happy Constitution Day!

September 17, 2012

By Elizabeth

Today marks the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. Established as a holiday in 2004 with the passage of an amendment to the Omnibus spending bill, Constitution Day mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on that day.

The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) makes the Constitution available to Congress and the public in a variety of formats, including a pocket-sized print version and a digital version on FDsys. Through the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP), libraries nationwide make the U.S. Constitution available to their communities.

The Library of Congress offers a variety of resources examining the creation of the Constitution, and the Law Library of Congress provides legislative and executive branch documents, journal articles, and links to other web sites in recognition of Constitution Day. Check them out, and please let us know if your library is involved in a Constitution Day event!

OpenTheGovernment’s 2012 Secrecy Report

September 14, 2012

By Elizabeth

Earlier this week, OpenTheGovernment.org released the latest edition of their annual Secrecy Report. This year’s report reveals mixed marks for the Obama administration’s open government policies, highlighting both positive developments and room for improvement.

Several signs of progress of are of note. For example, the government processed more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2011 than the previous year and brought the average cost of fulfilling a FOIA request down by more than $2. So far in his term, President Obama has not once cited executive privilege to deny Congressional requests for information, and the administration has also declassified previously secret defense information, some of which has not been declassified since the end of the Cold War.

However, there are still causes of concern around the administration’s level of secrecy, especially in light of the President’s bold promise of “unprecedented transparency.”  FOIA requests, the report noted, rose 5 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2011, and agencies processed 644,165, or 8 percent, more than the previous year— yet the backlog grew by 20 percent, reaching 83,490. It’s likely that the National Declassification Center will not meet its goal for declassifying old records on time. And while the volume of documents marked “Classified” continues to grow, there has been little assurance or reason offered for the decision that the information properly needs such protection.

The 2012 Secrecy Report includes a look at the limitations of the data the government currently makes available.  From the press release from OpenTheGovernment.org:

Missing and misleading data have a very real effect on the public’s ability to trust that the government is using taxpayer monies wisely, and that it is following its own policies. “Good information is essential for the public to know what interests are influencing government policies, and more,” said [Dr. Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org]. “Partial and mis- information, however, erodes accountability and prevents the public from having an informed debate about critical national issues.”

AALL is a founding member of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of 80+ groups advocating for open and accountable government. We’ll be joining a live Twitter chat with the report’s contributors on Tuesday, September 18th from 4–5 p.m. EDT. Follow us at @AALL_GRO and join the conversation with #secrecy12.

Urge Your Representatives to Oppose Extension of FISA Amendments Act

September 12, 2012

By Elizabeth

The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012H.R. 5949, a bill that would extend the provisions of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act (FAA) (P.L. 110-261) to December 31, 2017, rather than letting the FAA sunset on December 31, 2012.  The FAA permits the National Security Agency to intercept communications with non-citizens abroad without adequate judicial supervision. AALL opposed changes to FISA under the USA PATRIOT Act, which permitted government surveillance in criminal investigations without a showing of probable cause. We have long called for stronger oversight and transparency of government surveillance programs that monitor public communications, and we strongly urge members of the House of Representatives to vote “no” on this bill.

In April 2009, the New York Times reported that the NSA “intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress.” Despite evidence of impropriety, the government has not publicly detailed the extent of the problem or publicly explained what, if anything, it has done to prevent it from recurring.

Before Congress considers legislation to reauthorize the FAA, it should require the government to specify the nature and extent of this illegal surveillance and ensure that illegal surveillance does not recur under the FAA umbrella.

We expect floor debate on H.R. 5949 to begin today, Wednesday September 12. Call your Representative today and urge them to vote “no” on the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization of 2012.

CRS Report: “Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations”

September 7, 2012

By Elizabeth

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently updated its helpful report, “Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff.” A guide to finding current legislation and regulations, the report won’t offer much that’s new for those who have experience with legislative search tools, but can serve as an excellent introduction or reference.

H/T to the Free Government Information (FGI) blog for pointing out the report’s interesting comparison of the information available through the Congressional Legislative Information System (LIS) and the publically accessible THOMAS:

One thing I particularly liked was the comparison on p. 13 of the “Legislative Information System,” which provides access to legislative information to Members of Congress and their staff, and THOMAS, which makes information on federal legislation freely available to the public. That’s right, one system for Congress and a separate system for us ordinary folk.

Here is a sample:

Best used for Finding the most complete legislative information Best used for Working with constituents
Links from Bill Summary & Status display to CRS reports No CRS reports
Links to Capitol Hill and selected outside sources of floor and committee schedule information. Minimal links
Special advanced search capabilities Advanced search capabilities only in Bill Summary & Status database

The House Administration Committee is poised to consider H.Res. 727, the Congressional Research Service Electronic Accessibility Resolution of 2012, which would make CRS reports available online in a free, public database. It’s likely the bill could come to a vote in the lame duck session. CRS reports play a critical role in our democratic process by providing key historical context and options for further action— as well as useful, interesting information like that in the report above. Contact your representative today and ask them to support H.Res. 727 for greater public access to this important resource.

September Washington E-Bulletin

September 4, 2012

By Elizabeth

We’ve made some changes to our Washington E-Bulletin! Check out the latest issue, now available in HTML. We hope this new format will be easier to read and share. Questions or comments? Contact me at eholland@aall.org.


Note: The September 2012 Issue marks the beginning of a new format for the Washington E-Bulletin, now published at the beginning of the month. As such, there is no August 2012 issue.





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