The “Minor” Comment Submittal “Glitch” at Regulations.gov

August 31, 2009

From July 26th to July 30th of this year, two software defects at Regulations.gov prevented over 100 comments directed towards 11 federal agencies to be submitted. Aside from EPA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Regulations.gov, itself, has not informed the public of what other agencies were affected by this “glitch.”

In addition to the software problem, the lack of transparency about this issue is very troubling. The failure to file a timely comment could have consequences in a rulemaking proceeding, and the combination of the software difficulties and the lack of openness do not inspire confidence in the system.

You can read more about the problem at http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20090828_6883.php

[Submitted by Barbara Brandon, former AALL Government Relations Committee member]

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Sen. Lieberman Requests Answers from the Judicial Conference on Compliance with Court Provisions of the E-Government Act of 2002

March 2, 2009

On January 27, 2009, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, Chair of the Judicial Conference of the United States Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure. The letter raises important questions about how the Federal courts have complied with the transparency and privacy requirements of the E-Government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-347).

Before beginning to even draft his 2002 bill, Sen. Lieberman and his Committee held a yearlong online survey asking the American people what they wanted to see in e-government. Improved access to information from the courts, including no-fee access to the PACER system, was a frequent response.

I was privileged to work with Sen. Lieberman’s staff at the time and AALL was a strong supporter of the 2002 Act. We were especially pleased with the following important provision on public access to PACER.

Section 205(e) of the Act changed a provision of the Judicial Appropriation Act of 2002 (28 U.S.C. 1913 note) so that courts “may, to the extent necessary” instead of “shall” charge fees “for access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.”

This important change made it possible for the Government Printing Office and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to initiate a pilot project (now on temporary hold) allowing no-fee public access to PACER at 17 federal depository libraries. AALL’s Executive Board requested that the two organizations work together by endorsing the 2006 “AALL Resolution on No-Fee FDLP Access to PACER” and we applauded the beta-test.

Regarding PACER fees, Chairman Lieberman notes in his recent letter that,

“Seven years after the passage of the E-Government Act, it appears that little has been done to make these records freely available – with PACER charging a higher rate than 2002. Furthermore, the funds generated by these fees are still well higher than the cost of dissemination, as the Judiciary Information Technology Fund had a surplus of approximately $150 million in FY2006. Please explain whether the Judicial Conference is complying with Section 205(e) of the E-Government Act, how PACER fees are determined, and whether the Judicial Conference is only charging “to the extent necessary” for records using the PACER system.”

Privacy issues are also of concern to Chairman Lieberman, particularly regarding identity theft and the lack of redaction of personal data in some court records. His letter requests that the Court review its procedures to protect personal information in publicly available court records, as required by another provision of the 2002 Act. We are very pleased that Chairman Lieberman has requested a report to the Committee on both important issues.

AALL strongly supports no-fee public access to PACER as one of our top policy goals for the coming year. For more information on our position, please see page 3 of our “Statement to The Obama-Biden Transition Team: Public Policy Positions of The American Association of Law Libraries.”

The Government Relations Office has already begun to secure allies to assist our efforts toward making PACER available to the public at no cost. We are very grateful to Chairman Lieberman for his letter and request for information. We look forward to working with the Chairman and his staff on the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2009.

We encourage our Blawg readers to forward this posting to other interested stakeholders.

[Posted by Mary Alice Baish]


Timely Article Highlights the Loss of Federal Electronic Government Information

September 15, 2008

Robert Pear of The New York Times succinctly describes the enormous challenges of preserving the vast array of federal online government information in an article published on September 13, 2008, entitled, “In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip into Oblivion.” The article captures a key concern raised by AALL in a letter to members of Congress last April about the short-sighted and disappointing decision of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) not to harvest agency Web sites at the end of this administration. In the front page article, Acting Washington Affairs Representative Mary Alice Baish expresses AALL’s concern that, when a new administration is sworn in next year, huge amounts of information on agency Web sites from the past eight years of the Bush administration will disappear.

AALL’s Government Relations Policy includes “Principles and Core Values Concerning Public Information on Government Web Sites” that explicitly state that information on government Web sites must be preserved and that,

Snapshots of the complete underlying database content of dynamic Web sites should be taken regularly and archived in order to have a permanent record of all additions, changes, and deletions to the underlying data.

AALL’s policy states unequivocally that it is government’s responsibility to ensure the entire life-cycle of information on their Web sites, including its accessibility, reliability, official status, comprehensives and preservation.

As we reported in the blog last month regarding NARA’s decision not to harvest agency Web sites, the Library of Congress, the California Digital Library, the University of North Texas Libraries, the Internet Archive, and the U.S. Government Printing Office in August announced a collaborative project to conduct their own harvests of government Web sites. While we are extremely pleased that these institutions have stepped in to ensure the preservation of federal online government information, we also believe that NARA is shirking its own responsibility to conduct these agency harvests.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


Senate Subcommittee Holds Oversight Hearing of the National Archives

May 16, 2008

On Wednesday, May 14, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security held an oversight hearing of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The hearing focused on NARA’s electronic records management system and the preservation of executive branch electronic records, including White House emails.

The hearing featured two panels, the first of which included testimony from Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, NARA; Linda Koontz, Director, Information and Management Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Paul Brachfeld, Inspector General, NARA. Brachfeld’s testimony provided a harsh critique of NARA’s Electronic Records Archives (ERA), and its plans to manage electronic White House Presidential Records.

The second panel included testimony from Patrice McDermott, Director, OpenTheGovernment.org; Thomas Blanton, Director, National Security Archive and co-chair of OpenTheGovernment.org; Dr. Jim Henderson, Former State Archivist, State of Maine; and Dr. Martin Sherwin, Professor of History, George Mason University.

AALL is following many of the issues addressed by Dr. McDermott in her testimony. For example, Dr. McDermott discussed NARA’s role as the site of new public access initiatives, including the Office of Government Information Services mandated by the OPEN Government Act (see the January Edition of the AALL’s Washington E-Bulletin). NARA is also designated as the “Executive Agent” responsible for implementing the White House’s new Designation and Sharing of Controlled Unclassified Information (see our previous blog post). Dr. McDermott also addressed NARA’s electronic records management responsibilities and NARA’s decision to stop taking snapshots of federal agency websites (see the April Edition of the Washington E-Bulletin).

In addition, Dr. McDermott’s testimony addressed NARA’s efforts to increase access to digital records by entering into partnerships with private sector entities to digitize historical holdings. Dr. Weinstein also addressed these partnerships in his testimony. This was a timely discussion, because late last week NARA released its new Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2007-2016, building on its former strategic plans and addressing some of the input NARA received from stakeholders, including AALL. This new document outlines NARA’s approach to digitization projects and includes NARA’s “Principles for Partnerships to Digitize Archival Materials.” We are pleased that the document addresses some of the issues AALL pointed out in the comments we submitted last November, including that free access to digitized materials be available in a timely fashion. In addition, we commend NARA for its commitment to issue calls for comments on proposed partnerships. NARA also published a list of the types of comments they received during the public comment period.

Wednesday’s hearing, the Subcommittee’s first NARA oversight hearing in more than three years, was an important look at NARA’s efforts to manage information in the digital age. We thank the Subcommittee for holding the hearing and hope that the increased oversight and attention will lead to a stronger National Archives.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


House Hearing on Executive Branch Electronic Communications Preservation

April 23, 2008

The House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives will hold a hearing today to address the Electronic Communications Preservation Act (H.R. 5811), sponsored by Chairman of the Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA-30), Chairman of the Subcommittee Wm. Lacy Clay (D-MO-1), and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH-2). The bill directs the Archivist of the United States to establish standards for the capture, management, retrieval, and preservation of White House e-mails and other electronic communications. The Committee’s Press Release, summary of the bill, and full text of the bill is available here.

Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, will testify about the state of the preservation of electronic records and the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) oversight responsibilities. OpenTheGovernment.org recently assisted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) with data collection for their new report, “Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government.” Findings of the report include: federal agencies are not keeping up with modern electronic records management methods; there is widespread confusion among federal employees about their obligations regarding record keeping; and there is a lack of meaningful oversight of the agencies by NARA.

This hearing was originally scheduled for April 16, but canceled at the last minute. Assuming the witness list stays the same, the witnesses will include:

The Honorable Allen Weinstein
Archivist of the United States
National Archives and Records Administration

Dr. Anna K. Nelson
Director
American University – Department of History

Witness to be announced
Government Accountability Office

Patrice McDermott
Director
OpenTheGovernment.org

The hearing will take place at 2pm in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building. According to Committee staff, a live webcast should be available on the Committee website.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


Imagining a One-Stop Shop for Government Info

March 10, 2008

Imagine a “government information portal” that behaved like Amazon.com, where a user could go to find the text of a bill, related bills and hearings, lobbying information, and more, prioritized by a combination of user and legislative activity. That’s what Mark Stencel outlines in his latest “Futurist” column for CQ Weekly, “‘1-Click’ Government.” Basing his ideas for a government information portal on the “customer-centricity” of Amazon.com, Stencel outlines the potential for a one-stop shop for government information. Is this the future of a more organized and accessible government?

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


E-Government Reauthorization Moving in the Senate

January 31, 2008

On December 11, 2007, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007 (S. 2321). The legislation, introduced one month earlier by Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), would reauthorize the E-Government Act of 2002 and add a provision to improve the searchability of government websites.

I attended the hearing, E-Government 2.0: Improving Innovation, Collaboration, and Access”. The hearing explored three topics, as introduced by Chairman Lieberman: how close the government has come to reaching the goal of the E-Government Act of 2002; the problem of the searchability of government websites; and how new collaborative technologies can strengthen interaction among government agencies and the public. Witnesses included Karen S. Evans [testimony] , Administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology within the Office of Management and Budget; John Lewis Needham [testimony], Manager of Public Sector Content Partnerships at Google; Ari Schwartz [testimony], Deputy Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT); and Jimmy Wales [testimony], Founder of Wikipedia. CDT and OMB Watch released a report, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Why Important Government Information Cannot Be Found Through Commercial Search Engines,” addressing the problems of searchability of government websites.

At the hearing, Chairman Lieberman also introduced S.RES.401 to provide the public with access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) publications online. CRS is the non-partisan public policy research arm of Congress and produces reports for members of Congress on legislative issues. Constituents may request reports from their representatives. Several non-profit groups (through Open CRS ) and academic sites have been offering access to selected reports (see Guide to CRS Reports on the Web), but this resolution would provide expanded, comprehensive, and free access to these reports. We support this measure, along with the E-Government Reauthorization bill.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


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