v 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 IZepr~escntatives PUBLIC ACCESS Two Case Studies of Federal Electronic Dissemination 141356 united stat&l GAO General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20648 Information Management and Technology Division B-239019.1 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 B-239919.1 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, u Ralph V. Carlone Assistant Comptroller General Page 2 GAO/lMTEG9944BR Federal Electronic Dissemination . * . * Page 3 GAO/IMTEG9O4BB Federal Electronic Dissemination Contents L A Letter 1 Appendix I 6 Survey Results The Issues Addressed Is There a Legislative Mandate to Disseminate 6 6 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 Methodology Appendix III 12 Major Contributors to This Report Abbreviations 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 Page 4 GAO/IMTEGfW44BB Federal Electronic Dissemination . 1 . ., . ._- .-.- ---- -_ 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 information. 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 “diffuse.” Information 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 Page 6 GAO/IMTEG9044BB Federal JSlectronic Dissemination 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- users. 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. Page 7 GAO/IMTM!-QO-MBR Federal Electronic Dissemination 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. Page 8 GAO/IMTEG9O-44BR Federal FSectronic Dissemination 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. USDA’recent 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 Page 9 GAO/lMTEG9O-44BR Federal Electronic Dissemination 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. Page 10 GAO/lMTRGBO44RR Federal Electronic Dbaemination 5 t 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. S 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. Page 11 GAO/IMTEC90-44BR Federal Eleetronlc Dissemination 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
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)