Lawmakers told federal Web efforts hinder accessibility

Information technology executives and congressional leaders today questioned the progress of the Bush administration's efforts to make public documents easily accessible online and to inform Americans how it is protecting their personal information, as required by law.

John Lewis Needham, manager of public content partnerships at Google Inc., told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the configurations of many agencies' Web sites prevent search engines such as Google from finding public documents and displaying them in search results. He cited technical barriers including outmoded Web sites and proprietary federal databases that require unique search forms.

The 2002 E-Government Act requires agencies to make documents more accessible to the public via the Internet in an effort to make government policy-making more transparent. The law required the Office of Management and Budget to oversee the creation of a governmentwide portal (now called USA.gov), where citizens can access information from agencies and other organizations. Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., recently introduced a measure to reauthorize the E-Gov Act for another five years.

"The public frequently cannot find information and services placed on government Web sites specifically for their benefit," Lieberman said. "The reason is that information and services on many government sites -- through practice or policy -- are simply inaccessible to commercial search engines."

Needham said many documents remain hidden because search engines cannot navigate the labyrinthine infrastructure of government systems, or remain closed to search engine queries. He said an individual typically only will access a federal Web site to find information they know is there -- for example, the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement actions against a particular company. A search engine like Google or Yahoo would not find that kind of information because the EPA's database of enforcement reports cannot be included in a search engine's index. "Not every citizen realizes that the government offers services relevant to their situation," he said.

Karen Evans, administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at OMB, defended the administration's e-gov efforts, saying that agencies were dealing with "lots of information and trying to figure out the best way to deliver it" to the public. The information is out there, she said. "We just want to give it context."

Lieberman also questioned whether the Bush administration had met the E-Gov Act's call for a "system for finding, viewing and commenting on federal regulations." He expressed disappointment that the government's Regulations.gov Web site had not succeeded in opening the rule-making process, because there were few comments and no search engine access.

Evans said that "more needs to be done" and the site's developers would need to partner with the commercial search engine industry to do so. "Really, it's not a technology issue," she said, raising the question of whether more public access results in better regulations. "The issue is: 'How do we want the basics of rule-making to evolve?' Do more comments make a better rule?"

Jimmy Wales, founder of the interactive encyclopedia Wikipedia, now the eighth most trafficked Web site on the Internet, replied emphatically that "more comments do make for better rules....It's not just commenting, but collaborating."

He acknowledged that spammers and pranksters would embed unrelated links in their comments, and said "careful study" was needed to find the right balance of collaboration and public comment. He cited the history of Wikipedia and its belief that "people are essentially good" as the basis for community-based collaboration. "We believe that the better part of human nature prevails," Wales said.

The Bush administration also has not fully informed the public about how agencies protect their personal information. Agencies are required to outline in a so-called Privacy Impact Assessment how they are complying with privacy laws and how the agency plans to minimize the risks in information systems that store personal information. The administration has "a mixed picture on privacy," said Ari Schwartz, deputy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Some agencies, like DHS, are doing really well, but others are not doing well at all."

Schwartz said the State Department's Passport Program has not fully complied with the privacy assessment requirement, providing only minimal information. "It's only half a page, when in reality this should be one of the most sensitive statements out there," he said. "We've written to the State Department but as yet have received no response."

Schwartz said assessments are "often very poorly done" and that "the Privacy Act over time has weakened." To improve the assessments, Evans said agencies must designate a senior official for privacy. She added that inspectors general must review assessments' quality and that OMB must work with each agency to check the thoroughness of the assessments.

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