Joshua Gotbaum Statement to House Management, Information, and Technology Subcommittee, 06/14/2000

Statement of Hon. Joshua Gotbaum
Acting Deputy Director for Management
U.S. Office of Management And Budget
before the
Subcommittee on Management, Information, and Technology
Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
U.S. House of Representatives

June 14, 2000

Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. I am here today to discuss the policies that foster citizen access to information from and about the Federal government, in particular the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 (EFOIA).


Access to Government Information

The basis of FOIA is that democracy requires an informed citizenry. This principle has been recognized and supported by administrations of both parties for many years.


This Administration has undertaken many initiatives to improve citizen access to government information. It has been an Administration priority to use information technology to improve the dissemination of government information, as well as other services to the public. From the beginnings of this Administration, with the National Performance Review and the work on the National Information Infrastructure, the work we did with this committee, and the work that we do with the agencies on the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, we continue to advance initiatives in this area.


The Administration has recognized the vast potential of the Internet from the earliest days. In July 1997 we put out the e-commerce principles, which relied heavily on industry self-regulation. Adherence to these principles has allowed the Internet to flourish in a manner that is generally free from government restrictions. In December 1999, the President issued three directives to build on these principles and promote e-commerce. The first, on the digital divide, discusses the need to focus on segments of the society that may not have access to technology. The second calls upon agencies to improve the way that we live with technology -- using technologies such as telemedicine to improve peoples' lives. The third directive encourages electronic government, with two major efforts: a) create a common, user-friendly entry point for on-line government information and services and b) develop common technical standards for doing business with different agencies, so that businesses and consumers will not have to "reinvent their electronic wheels" each time they contact a new agency.


Activities that have resulted from these efforts can be seen throughout the Federal government:


  • FedStats.Gov is a web site that provides the public a single point of entry to the wide array of federal statistics maintained by various federal agencies. The public now no longer needs to understand how our decentralized statistical system works, and who is responsible for which statistics, to obtain information that they might have accessed through FOIA in the past. They simply need to know what topic they care about and go to to find the information. Since its inception in 1997, FedStats has logged close to 3 million user sessions and has garnered enthusiastic public support.
  • Travelers can now check up-to-the-minute information for weather-related delays at forty major U.S. airports using the Federal Aviation Administration's web site The web site has received almost one million visitors since its launch on April 3, 2000, and the number of travelers accessing the site nearly doubles each week.
  • Consumers and healthcare professionals can access reliable information on over 1,000 health-related issues at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' healthfinder web site, Visitors to the site have access to a variety of services, including online publications, information on support and self-help groups, and links to government agencies and not-for-profit organizations that produce reliable information for the public. Launched in April 1997, healthfinder served over 1.7 million visitors in its first year online and more than 4.5 million in 1999.
  • The Toxic Release Inventory ("TRI") is an EPA on-line database of toxic chemicals that are being used, manufactured, treated, transported, or released into the environment, found at TRI enables citizens to become more aware of toxic chemicals in their own neighborhoods checking the status of their area. It encourages dialogue between individuals and companies that may change poor environmental practices. Additionally, many emergency management agencies, such as fire departments and emergency medical services, use TRI to identify chemicals in use and map facility layouts for a more effective, quicker response to emergencies.
  • Medicare Compare Database, found at Medicare Compare is an interactive database that provides comprehensive information on various Medicare health plan options, detailing the cost, quality, and benefits of each plan.

These examples are just the beginning. There are many more.


The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act, the first law to establish an effective statutory right of access to government information, has evolved a great deal since it was first passed 34 years ago. In addition to enabling any person to find out information about the operations, policies, and workings of their government, it now is a major conduit for valuable commercial data and an important source of information for authors, historians, political scientists, university researchers, representatives of the news media, and many others.


FOIA has stood the test of time. It has been amended six times to meet changing information needs of the public interest. Generally it has been broadened to include more information and expand citizen access. In addition, FOIA requests to the Federal government regularly total more than 600,000 records a year. The FOIA process continues to be an information resource to the public.


As the potential of electronic information transmission, via the Internet and other means, has been recognized, the principles underlying FOIA have been extended several times. One, of course, is EFOIA, the principal subject of this hearing.


Since electronic transmission is usually far more efficient than via paper, agencies have responded by converting from paper to electronic means, and from individual responses to broader distribution and dissemination. In general, obtaining information under this policy -- whether through libraries, public affairs offices, or on-line - is the most efficient means for the public to gain access to commercially valuable information, basic information about government activities and policies, and frequently requested information.


Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996

In order to further facilitate the electronic dissemination of information Congress passed and the President signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Improvement Act in October 1996. As this Committee knows, EFOIA was intended to expand public access to Federal government information electronically and reduce agency backlogs. EFOIA includes three major points:


  • Electronic Reading Rooms: Agencies should create electronic "reading rooms", permitting remote access to specific agency information and frequently requested documents.
  • On-Line Indexes: Agencies should create electronic indexes of major information systems. A description of major information and record locator systems should be put on-line.
  • Electronic Option on FOIA Requests: FOIA information disclosures are required to give an electronic option if possible.

Federal agencies have been working to implement these mandates. Although there is variation in agency practice, both OMB and DOJ believe compliance is both the goal and the norm.


EFOIA also established certain procedures to facilitate these changes. OMB was required to consult with the Department of Justice in developing annual reporting guidelines for a new web-enabled annual report. That report is now both available and successful and can be found at EFOIA also required agencies to develop and make available a handbook of citizen access to agency information, whether through FOIA requests or other means. OMB provided guidance on placing the index and description of information systems on-line and also provided guidance on developing the agency EFOIA handbooks in 1997; this was updated in 1998.


The Department of Justice continues to provide training and extensive guidance on how to meet the requirements of the EFOIA amendments and FOIA in general. OMB continues to consult and support the Department in its role as the primary provider of guidance on FOIA.


Other factors besides EFOIA have motivated agencies to put information on-line. Under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, managers of information are directed to "ensure that the public has timely and equitable access to the agency's public information." (44 U.S.C. Sec. 3506(d)). Electronic dissemination is also encouraged by information dissemination policies under OMB Circular A-130 and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.


As noted above, in many cases providing information this way is vastly more efficient. Furthermore, since FOIA fees are small and do not support agency activities, by putting important information on-line agencies save themselves time and resources. At a time of constrained budgetary resources this provides a powerful incentive in itself.


Of course, there is substantial variation among agencies and their missions, and substantial variation in the extent to which they have provided automatic dissemination of information. To some extent, this is a legacy of information infrastructure. Agencies use a variety of electronic systems, including a range of databases and different kinds of proprietary and non-proprietary software, to create and maintain records. Even within many departments, component agencies have difficulty sharing electronic data among themselves, much less with the public. On-line access to agency records may be limited by issues as banal as obsolete wiring, the absence of an employee trained to reprogram old computer code, or the lack of space or funds to set up an agency server and hire an employee to maintain it. We are attempting to address these concerns through the budget process as new systems are implemented, by ensuring that different systems work together, can evolve as technology and program needs change, and will be increasingly accessible to citizens.


We are also encouraging agencies to respond to basic requests for information, such as press releases, copies of laws, and other widely available information, by referral the agency web site or other on-line sources. If agencies can provide better service to the public by directing them to go on-line, they should do so. Thus, the broad information dissemination policy articulated in the PRA and OMB Circular A-130 is generally more efficient than the traditional FOIA case-by-case approach.


Nevertheless, it would be neither feasible for the government nor essential for the requester that all government information be placed on-line or published affirmatively. In addition to resource constraints, the public's right of access to government information must be balanced against other concerns, such as protection of private intellectual property or proprietary information, an individual's right to privacy, the government's deliberative process for making and implementing policy, and national security classified information. Therefore, it is critical to recognize that the FOIA, which requires disclosure of information where the information is not otherwise exempt, should continue to be available as the avenue of last resort, as it has since 1966.


The Role of OMB

OMB exercises broad authority for overseeing government-wide information policy to achieve these goals. OMB is charged under the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. 35) with providing leadership and oversight for the information resource management activities of the Federal government. This wide array of responsibilities includes monitoring agency activities under the Computer Security Act and the Privacy Act. As you know, we were also the focal point for the very successful Federal agency transition for Year 2000 and provided significant staff support to John Koskinen and the Y2K Conversion Council. We continue to work with agencies on their implementation of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA). Finally, we are in the process of incorporating comments based on a proposed revision to OMB Circular A-130, "Management of Federal Information Resources" which sets broad policy for IRM in a number of areas. This proposed revision is an important step toward the incorporation of the language and intention of the Clinger-Cohen Act.


Under EFOIA, OMB provided guidance on meeting EFOIA obligations. Under EFOIA and FOIA more broadly we continue to provide guidance on setting fees. In these areas OMB continues to cooperate with the Department of Justice to provide consistency in support of agency efforts.



The Administration is working hard to improve agency affirmative dissemination practices and increase disclosure while protecting privacy, national security, and other legitimate interests. Our hope is to decrease reliance on individual FOIA responses by use of the approaches contained in EFOIA and elsewhere, and to increase public access to other more efficient and useful information venues. We are taking deliberate advantage of technological innovation, particularly the Internet and the World Wide Web, to facilitate this change in direction and emphasis.


The challenges we are facing in this area are primarily managerial, technical, and resource related, rather than based on legal or policy concerns. The two major challenges facing the Federal government today are improving agency practices regarding the management of information in electronic formats, and designing and fielding the information technology infrastructure necessary to facilitate information sharing. The changes and improvements over the past several years in the management and implementation of information technology have been dramatic, and we anticipate continued rapid improvement in the years to come.


We consider these efforts to be very important and we believe the US Government has made extraordinary progress. Even before EFOIA in responding to the Freedom of Information Act the United States had to done one of the best jobs in the world in making government information available to the public. Now, as much as any government in the world, we are seeking to take advantage of the Internet to provide unparalleled information to our citizens. We look forward to continuing these efforts, and hope to continue the constructive dialogue with the Congress to support them.