Public Access: Two Case Studies of Federal Electronic Dissemination

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-05-14.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

lilrilwl   St,at.w (hllc~rnl Awounl.ing   Office
IZoporl, to the Chairmen, Subcommittee                      * ’
on Govttrnment Inf’ormation, Justice,
and Agri.culture, Committee on
Chvernment Operations, House of

Two Case Studies of
Federal Electronic

GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20648

                   Information Management and
                   Technology Division

                   May 14,199O
                   The Honorable Bob Wise, Jr.
                   Chairman, Subcommitteeon Government
                     Information, Justice, and Agriculture
                   Committee on Government Operations
                   House of Representatives
                   Dear Mr. Chairman:
                   On October 3,1989, we briefed your staff on the results of a survey of
                   the effectiveness of electronic information dissemination policies and
                   practices of selected programs of the Environmental Protection Agency
                   (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).   The overall objective of
                   our survey was to determine whether these policies and practices were
                   ensuring the broadest dissemination of disclosable government informa-
                   tion. We advised your staff that we found no material weaknessesin
                   USDA’Selectronic information dissemination policies and practices; that
                   we are reserving judgment on EPA'Sprogram pending the completion of a
                   statutorily mandated review; and that we, therefore, planned to termi-
                   nate our survey. You felt, however, that the Subcommittee and the pub-
                   lic would nevertheless be interested in our results, and requested a
                   report on our work.

                   Both USDAand EPAhave a number of information dissemination systems.
Background         We limited our analysis to two major on-line data bases - the Comput-
                   erized Information Delivery Service (CID@at USDAand the Toxics Release
                   Inventory (TN) at EPA.ems is an electronically disseminated data base of
                   agricultural marketing, trade, sales, production, and news information
                   that is operated by a competitively selected contractor. TRIis an elec-
                   tronically disseminated data base of toxic chemicals emitted into the
                   environment, which is accessiblethrough the National Library of
                   Medicine’s TOXNET(Toxicology Data Network).

Results in Brief   We found no evidence that USDA’electronic
                                                     S         dissemination policies and
                   practices impede the public’s accessto its ems on-line data base. Our
                   conclusion on EPA'STRI data base must await completion of a more thor-
                   ough review now in progress. (The 1986 Superfund Amendments
                   require us to conduct a comprehensive review of EPA'Simplementation
                   of the Toxic ReleaseInventory Program. We anticipate issuing our
                   report in early 1991.)

                   Page 1                        GAO/%WTEC9044BR   Federal Electronic   Dimemination

In general, the limited number of users we contacted during our survey
mentioned no widespread problems with USDA'Sdissemination policies
and practices, although a few had some difficulty with data timeliness
or inadequate indexing. Users of USDA'Scm data base confirmed that it
generally meets the needs of users in the agricultural community. Sev-
eral users of EPA'STRI data base found on-line accessthrough the
National Library of Medicine’s TOXNETto be a cumbersomeand time-con-
suming process.

Appendix I details our survey results. Appendix II explains our objec-
tives, scope and methodology. We did not obtain formal agency com-
ments on this report, but we did brief officials of both agencieson the
results of our survey. They concurred with our findings and felt our
report would confirm their commitment to provide all organizations and
individuals fair accessto their data bases.As arranged with your office,
copies of this report shall be made available to the public upon request.
The report was prepared under the direction of Jack Brock, Director,
Government Information and Financial Management,who can be
reached at (202) 276-3195. Other major contributors are listed in appen-
dix III.
Sincerely yours,

Ralph V. Carlone
Assistant Comptroller General

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                  L     A

Letter                                                                                                          1

Appendix I                                                                                                      6
Survey Results              The Issues Addressed
                            Is There a Legislative Mandate to Disseminate
                                 Information Electronically?
                            Do the Agencies’Policies Hinder Public Access?                                      7
                            What Procedures and Practices Ensure Federal                                        7
                                 Information’s Dissemination in Accordance With
                                 Agency Policies?
                            Are the Information Needs of the Users- Government,                                 9
                                 Private Sector and Public- Being Met by the
                                 Government Agencies?

Appendix II                                                                                                 11
Objectives, Scope and
Appendix III                                                                                                12
Major Contributors to
This Report


                            ARL     Association of Research Libraries
                            CD-ROM  Compact Optical Disk - Read Only Memory
                            CIDS    Computerized Information Delivery Service
                            EPA     Environmental Protection Agency
                            GAO     General Accounting Office
                            IMTJ3C  Information Management and Technology Division
                                    Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986
                            'KIXNET Toxicology Data Network
                            TRI     Toxics ReleaseInventory
                            USDA    United States Department of Agriculture

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            .,   .   ._-   .-.-   ----   -_

                                              Page I5   GAO/lMTEC90-44BR   Federal Electronic   Dissemination
Appendix I

Survey Results

The Issues Addressed     tively and efficiently, federal agencieshave converted public informa-
                         tion from paper documents and data files into electronic data base
                         systems. Various public interest groups have expressed concern that
                         this transformation of public information and public decision-making
                         into electronic formats has occurred without serious public policy atten-
                         tion being paid to how it may affect citizen accessrights to public

                         In recent hearings, workshops, and studies sponsored by several con-
                         gressional committees; in reports published by the public interest
                         groups; and in articles in professional journals, the debate on federal
                         information policy has generally focused on potential consequencesof
                         disseminating government public information in electronic formats.
                         Repeatedly one hears that the public is losing the ability to know (1)
                         what information the federal government now has, (2) its content and
                         format, and (3) how to locate/accessit efficiently and economically.
                         Two examples were cited in the ongoing debate: USDA'SElectronic Dis-
                         semination of Information System (now called CIDS),which is accessible
                         through commercial on-line services; and EPA'STRI data base, which is
                         accessibleon-line through the National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET.

Is There a Legislative   describe how information is to be provided to the public. The terms
Mandate to               “make available” and “disseminate” were used most often, but the legis-
Disseminate              lation also used other terms such as “disclose,” “clearinghouse,” and
Electronically?          USDA'SCIDSis not   specifically mandated by law, but it does conform to
                         statutory provisions requiring USDAto diffuse, disseminate, and publish
                         a wide range of agricultural data and information. Through CIDS,USDA
                         disseminatesinformation such as daily market reports, weekly and
                         monthly crop and livestock statistical reports, periodic economicoutlook
                         and situation reports, news releases,foreign agricultural trade leads,
                         export sales reports, and weekly world agricultural production and
                         trade statistics. Thus, USDA'SCIDSwas created to meet the public’s need
                         for electronically transmitted time-sensitive agricultural data.
                         In contrast, Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization
                         Act of 1986 (SARA- P.L. 99-499) contains precedent-setting provisions
                         requiring EPAto establish the TRI data base and to make it available to

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                         Appendix I
                         survey Result

                         the public through telecommunications and other means’. This statute
                         thus enables citizens using a computer at home or at their local library
                         to determine what toxic substanceshave been released in specific geo-
                         graphical areas.

                         Policies developed by USDA did not appear’to impede the public’s access
Do the Agencies’         to government information. USDA’S dissemination policy goesback to the
Policies Hinder Public   act establishing the Department. The Act of 1862 instructs USDA to
Access?                  “acquire and diffuse useful information on subjects connected with agri-
                         culture.” With respect to CIDS, USDA established two policy objectives: (1)
                         not to offer value-added information directly to end users and thereby
                         compete with established agricultural information vendors and (2) to
                         make USDAinformation available to all subscribers at the same time.
                         Minimum usage fees are set to make the service attractive to high-vol-
                         ume subscribers intending to resell the information to ultimate end-

                         EPA’S information  policy manual provides guidance on various subjects
                         relating to the public’s accessto government information and appar-
                         ently does not restrict such access.

                         Both USDA and EPA have developed and used information dissemination
What Procedures and      tools and techniques, including microcomputer floppy disk, magnetic
Practices Ensure         tape, electronic bulletin boards, on-line data bases,and microfiche.
Federal Information’s    USDA’S various  agencies,such as the Extension Service and the National
Dissemination in         Agricultural Statistics Service, publish catalogs of available agricultural
Accordance With          data which can be obtained in hard copy periodicals and monographs, as
Agency Policies?         well as in various electronic media. For example, USDA advertises crbs
                         through notices in hard copy reports, press releases,agency confer-
                         ences,and the Federal Register. CIDS is operated by a contractor selected
                         through competitive procurement. The contractor sells only unanalyzed
                         or “wholesale” information and must assure equal accessby all custom-
                         ers upon release of market sensitive data by USDA.Since CIDS was
                         designed to augment rather than replace the published reports of USDA
                         agencies,the agenciesstill make their data available in printed form, as

                         ‘Under Title III, section 313 of SARA,we are conductinga comprehensivereview of EPA’simplemen-
                         tation of the Toxics ReleaseInventory Program,including how EPA has madethis data accessibleand
                         available to the public.

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Appendix I
Survey Resnlts

well as through electronic media such as magnetic tapes and floppy dis-
kettes. USDAis also exploring the use of CD-ROM (compact disc-read only
memory) technology to meet the library/research community’s need for
archival files and to offer a wider range of agricultural information to
college students and farmers.
USDAhas not   implemented a program to formally canvass users and
assesstheir satisfaction with CDS; however, the CIDS staff periodically
attend meetings and conferencesto obtain feedback from users such as
agricultural research economists.Recent efforts by USDA on CIDS should
increase the availability and use of agricultural data becausethe mini-
mum monthly fee has been cut in half, and users can now accesssmaller
report segments.Depository Libraries2 also can participate as “coopera-
tors” and thereby have the minimum monthly fee waived by USDA.

EPA has also developed policies and diverse mechanisms for informing
the public. For example, EPA is disseminating electronically formatted
TRI information by means other than on-line service. Microfiche copies
were sent by EPA to selected public libraries in every county in the coun-
try; CD-ROMSwill be sent by EPA to approximately 500 depository librar-
ies and EPA regional libraries. Floppy diskettes, magnetic tape,
microfiche, and CD-ROMSare or soon will be available for purchase
through the National Technical Information Service and the Government
Printing Office. EPA has prepared a directory of all libraries which have
microfiche copies of the data base. Agency officials have expressed
interest in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of current infor-
mation dissemination systems and practices (including TRI), and towards
that end, have recently contracted for a management assessmentof its
clearinghouses,electronic bulletin boards, hotlines, and dockets,

2Approximately 1400DepositoryLibraries have beendesignatedand are required by law (44 U.S.C.
1912)to receivefrom the GovernmentPrinting Office copiesof all new or revised governmentpubli-
cations authorizedfor disseminationto the public.

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                        Appendix I
                        Survey BesuIte

                        In discussing CIDSand TRI with knowledgeable individuals and special
Are the Information     interest-groups such as Association of ResearchLibraries (ARL), Ameri-
Needs of the Users-     can Library Association, and OMB Watch, we encountered concern over
Government, Private     USDAand EPA'Sinformation dissemination practices, such as poor index-
                        ing of reports, or inadequate distribution through the Depository Librar-
Sector and Public-      ies. But none cited any instances with CIDSwhere the needed
Being Met by the        information/data was unavailable, inaccessible,too costly or too inaccu-
Government Agencies.3   rate to use. Moreover, these groups could not show any harm resulting
                        from USDA'sdissemination practices to justify their concerns.
                        An analysis of relevant documentation and of comments made by USDA
                        agencieswho use CIDSconfirmed that CIDSdoes meet the information
                        needs of these agencies’respective constituencies. At USDA,CIDSis aimed
                        at information resellers - not at the ultimate end-users of information,
                        although anyone may subscribe. Through contractual arrangements
                        made between the subscriber and the CIDScontractor, CIDSautomatically
                        transmits to the subscriber’s computer or mailbox the agricultural infor-
                        mation specified by the subscriber. The number of information resellers
                        who add value to the agricultural data retrieved from CIDSand then sell
                        this value-added information retail to individual end-users, had reached
                        17 by October 1989. The number of private subscribers has grown from
                        16 in July 1986 to over 60 by January 1990.
                        Moreover, according to USDArepresentatives, contrary to recent pub-
                        lished allegations, the public gained rather than lost ground with the
                        implementation of cm becauseit augmented the traditional methods of
                        disseminating agricultural information to users. In addition, two agricul-
                        tural data users told us that individual farmers generally rely heavily on
                        information retailers and other sources for their information because
                        they do not have the time or the inclination to analyze massive amounts
                        of raw agricultural data released through cm,.
                        Evidence also from ARL supports our overall finding that the public can
                        gain accessto USDA’agricultural
                                              S            information. ARL requested its 119
                        libraries to provide us with documentation on problems they were hav-
                        ing with the dissemination of government information. Only four
                        expressed some concerns with such things as not receiving information
                        promptly, or not being able to find some publications. But no one said
                        the information was unavailable within USDA.

                               S     actions suggest the contractor will make the electronically
                        disseminated agricultural data more attractive to individuals and orga-
                        nizations who may not have been able to afford USDA'Scomputerized

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Appendix I
Snrvey Itemlta

information delivery service. The increased opportunity to obtain USDA'S
time-sensitive data was made possible by the agency’s decision to:
(a) cut the minimum monthly subscription fee from $150 to $76,
(b) permit subscribers to electronically accesssmaller segmentsof long
USDAreports, and (c) waive the minimum monthly subscription fee for
those depository libraries and land-grant collegeswho want to access
CID& The first two actions will substantially reduce the costs to individ-
ual users needing immediate accessto current USDAdata.
While evidence indicates that information needs of users are generally
being met by USDA'Son-line system, discussions with a limited number of
TRI users revealed that the TRI on-line system, as currently configured, is
not considered to be user-friendly. Our own experiments with accessing
the system bore this out. For example, we tried in three separate experi-
ments to use the system based on the same information that was availa-
ble to the public. The results of the first two experiments were
inconclusive. In the third experiment, after many unsuccessful attempts
to log onto the system, we were finally able to enter TOXNET,but could
not accessthe TFUdata base, even though we followed the instructions
provided by the National Library of Medicine. To accessTRI it was neces-
sary to call the National Library of Medicine for help.

Most of the environmental organizations we talked with, including New
York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, were aware of the
TRI data base, but had not used the on-line system. EPA has not developed
sufficient documentation on the public’s use of the TRI data base to show
whether the user’s needs are being met, becausethe on-line system had
just recently becomeoperational in July 1989. However, EPA officials
said that EPA was taking steps to: (a) promote the availability of TRI
data, (b) describe how the TRI data can be obtained and used in protect-
ing public health, as well as the limitations on its use, and (c) identify
potential users and their needs. Our on-going review of the program will
 assessthe effectiveness of these actions.

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Appendix II

Objectives,Scopeand Methodology

              The overall objective of this survey, conducted under our legislative
              authority to evaluate federal agency programs, was to determ ine
              whether the electronic dissem ination policies and practices of the EPA
              and USAAwere ensuring the broadest dissem ination of disclosable gov-
              ernm ent inform ation. Sinceboth EPAand USDAhad developed and imple-
              m ented a num ber of inform ation dissem ination systems (manual and
              autom ated), we restricted our survey analyses to two m ajor on-line elec-
              tronic data bases:EPA'STRI and USDA’CIDS.
              Specifically, we wished to determ ine whether the agency’s dissem ina-
              tion practices and systems were (1) satisfying legislative requirem ents
              and the public’s right to know, (2) getting the right inform ation to the
              agency’s constituents, and (3) providing people fair accessto public data
              and inform ation. To do so we identified the statutory provisions
              directing EPAand USDA   to dissem inatedata. We attended congressional
              hearings and analyzed legislative docum ents to ascertain current con-
              gressional thinking on granting public accessto the governm ent’s elec-
              tronic and published data. We talked with agency inform ation resources
              m anagem entand program officials about the agency’s legislative m an-
              dates and the dissem ination programs set up to satisfy those statutory
              initiatives and to achieve the agency’s m ajor dissem ination objectives.
              Further, we interviewed representatives of selected producers and users
              of EPA'Sand USDA'Sinform ation to identify and docum ent their concerns
              about accessing,loading/downloading, or using the data on the two elec-
              tronic dissem ination systems.The users were also asked to identify and
              docum ent the effect of any problems they had in getting or using this
              inform ation.

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Appendix III

Major Contributors to This Report i j

                       Vincent DeSanti, Assistant Director
Information            Kennard Thompson, Evaluator-in-Charge
Management and         William Dunahay, Evaluator
Technology Division,
Washington, DC.

(aloaoe)               Page 12                   GAO/IMTEGgO-44RR   Federal Electronic   Dhumlnation