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Superintendent of Documents says
U.S. information policy is fragmented
April 6, 1998

Francis J. Buckley Jr. is superintendent of documents for the United States. It's his job to see that the thousands of documents published every year by the federal government are distributed to the public, both in print and electronic formats. He is the government official with primary responsibility for ensuring that the govenment's historic commitment to provide access to federal data and information to its citizenry is honored in deed as well as word. To accomplish his mission, he employs a network of 1,400 federal depository libraries, oversees the sale of documents in Government Printing Office (GPO) bookstores, and maintains the GPO Access service on the Internet.

Appearing at the Dodd Research Center March 27, as a speaker in the University Libraries' InForum colloquium series, Buckley described the economic, political, technical, and cultural factors that have made his job, never an easy one, more challenging than ever before. He characterized the current philosophical and procedural framework of federal information policy as "a fragmented landscape."

Title 44 of the U. S. Code requires that all tangible government information products be presented to the GPO for publication and dissemination. Agency compliance with this law has never been complete, Buckley says. He estimates that 50 percent of taxpayer-funded information has not been made available to depository libraries. And now, government agencies are finding ever more ways to avoid their legal responsibilities. The incidence of "fugitive documents" has increased as agencies use private, commercial publishers to print their documents and as they seek to alter the definition of what constitutes government information. The Executive Branch has even been known to defend its refusal to cooperate with the GPO (a legislative office) by citing the separation of powers doctrine.

Buckley cited the case of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, whose publication rights were sold to Oxford University Press, as an example of what can happen when commercial publishers usurp the role of the GPO. Depository libraries were faced with the prospect of having to purchase a seminal research journal that previously had been provided at no cost. Prolonged protest resulted in having this journal of mostly publicly-funded research once again included in the depository program.

Electronic technology also poses challenges to the mission of the GPO. On the plus side, the Internet facilitates faster dissemination of govenment information at less expense. Buckley cited the unequivocal success of GPO Access ( as a comprehensive electronic gateway to primary legislative materials, an index for government information, and an entry point to 23,000 agency databases. As a mark of its success, it has been praised by both the Heritage Foundation and the Congressional Accountability Project, public policy groups at opposite poles of the political spectrum. On the downside, electronic technology has made GPO's mandate to index government information and ensure its preservation more complex.

Legislative proposals to update Title 44, to address noncompliance, and to ensure permanent, universal access to government information are in the works, as is a comprehensive government information policy that will redefine the concept of government information to include electronic documents, combat fugitive documents, and eliminate exemptions for government information published by commercial publishers. Buckley stressed the importance of public support for these efforts.

Also at the colloquium, Gerald Gates, senior statistician for the Bureau of the Census, described dissemination plans for the decennial census of 2000. He stressed that care will be taken to address growing public concerns regarding privacy through traditional strategies that restrict the release of data, and also through electronic firewalls and other techniques to make sure sensitive business and personal information is protected.

Gates outlined the goals of the Census Bureau in creating an integrated website that will provide public access to data from the 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses, the 1997 economic census, and many other program areas..

The proposed data access and dissemination system will offer increased access to demographic and economic information, more quickly and in a more flexible manner, through Internet technologies. The system will incorporate novice and expert paths to access census information and will allow query results to be linked to thematic mapping tools, support manipulation of table format and content, and will allow user-defined tabulations and data extractions.

Steven Batt & David Kapp