Advocacy groups rounding up stray government information

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Likening themselves to a sort of a virtual posse, researchers with two government watchdog groups this week began compiling a “Most Wanted” list of unclassified government documents, reports and data that they contend should be posted on the Internet.

“We're deputizing the Net community, journalists and researchers,” said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “If your document is chosen as one of the top 10, you will be rewarded with a full-force effort to get the documents you are seeking up on the Web.”

Over the past week, the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch posted “Wanted” messages on listservers, newsgroups and elsewhere on the Web to solicit contributions to the list.

The Center for Democracy and Technology examines constitutional issues as they apply to burgeoning technologies such as the Internet. OMB Watch is a nonprofit research group that keeps tabs on activities at the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Rick Blum, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, says the groups are seeking lists of federal government documents that should be readily available on the Internet. He said the groups decided to borrow the concept of the “Wanted” poster to give the project a sense of urgency.

“We think there is a need for the public to focus on how they get information,” Blum said. “I don't think people realize that a lot of the information they use comes from the government.

“On the flip side, the government has many reasons to make information available to the public in a manner that is both useful and usable.”

For both Schwartz and Blum, the most glaring omission on the Web is the lack of Congressional Research Service reports, documents that detail research conducted for members of Congress. Although posted online, the reports are available only to congressional offices on an internal network accessible with a password.

“Some listings of reports are haphazardly made available, but basically you have to guess whether there is a report on a subject of concern to you,” Schwartz said. “What a waste — making it more difficult to know what research has been done and wasting more taxpayer dollars through requesting the reports in hard copy.”

Blum says the lack of reports can make answering a seemingly simple question like “Is my water safe to drink?” a difficult process.

“Sometimes the answer to those questions are split up among different agencies,” Blum said. “It's very hard to piece all of that information together.”

By targeting the most egregious omissions, the groups hope to encourage government agencies and the White House to establish a policy of placing more government information on the Internet.

“They've been doing it on a case-by-case basis, and we want that to change,” Schwartz said. “This is something government should be doing already. It shouldn't be up to a couple of advocacy groups to ask.”

To participate, fill out the form or visit the OMB Watch Web site. Those interested may also send e-mail to by Aug. 1. Schwartz says the names of contributors will be kept strictly confidential so that government employees and grantees can participate.