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E-Government Information and Public Access: Online electronic government information and the impact of the government shutdown on public access

By Crystal Vicente, Published on January 12, 2014

Abstract

A dramatic termination of e-government access occurred when the October 2013 federal funding gap resulted in a shutdown of government processes. The public's access to government information was severely limited, and in some cases prohibited entirely. The natural progress for an advanced technological society is to make information available via Internet anytime and from anywhere. However, when access is eliminated, the resulting information crisis cripples the public's interaction with the federal government. The shutdown and the subsequent lack of access to government information is an indicator that the information dissemination model is faulty, and reliance on a single point of access is a mistake. Libraries, long charged with protecting the public's access to information, are challenged to find a viable solution to protecting free permanent public access.

Keywords: government information, e-government, shutdown, single point of access, information access, free permanent public access

Introduction

On October 1, 2013, due to a lapse in federal funding, the United States government shut down. A message on the government website, fdlp.gov read,

Congress has not passed an appropriation for FY 2014 or a Continuing Resolution to allow Government agencies to continue normal operations... all staff of Library Services and Content Management (LSCM) will be furloughed...During a furlough due to a Government shutdown, GPO employees can only work on activities directly related to the legislative process, and on activities for an orderly shutdown and to protect property and assets... We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our Federal Depository Library partners and the patrons you serve.

This announcement was the preamble to 17 days of government information paralysis. What were the effects of a Federal Government shutdown on patron access to information? The Library of Congress stopped all of their services, government agency websites were closed, events canceled. The resulting uncertainty had many librarians scrambling for alternative resources to answer the many questions that patrons continued to bring. With the amount of government information published to the Web and the push for citizens to interact with their government via Internet, a government shutdown is an information crisis.

Literature review

According to the research, more and more government information is now accessed through the Internet. Jacobs, Jacobs, and Yeo (2005) reported that at least 84 percent of government information is currently published online, and Kumar (2006) confirmed that agencies are publishing information directly to federal agency websites in attempts to save on printing costs. Jacobs et al. (2005) stated that this new model of information dissemination to the public eliminates the traditional route through the Government Printing Office and the indexing and cataloging system in place to keep an accurate record of government information. Also, the authors continued, many documents are lost from the lack of preservation from the ease of updating and deleting that Web publishing creates. Forte, Harnett, and Sevetson (2011) argued that having the information available online is not enough and agreed with Jorgensen (2006) and Jaeger and Bertot (2011) that many citizens do not have adequate access to the electronic version of government information. Librarians, the Hoduski (2013) article pointed out, are greatly concerned about public access and retrieval of information when it is not properly preserved or easily available. The Shuler (2005) article argued that the trend for government agencies to publish directly to the web is an information revolution; a new exchange between the information and the users, but failed to address the sector of society that do not have the equipment, technology, or skills to adequately interact with e-government. The articles by Crotti (2013), Blakely and Jacobs (2005), Jacobs et al. (2005), and Peterson and Jacobs (2005) contested the idea of a single institution controlling the only point of access. In addition, the literature indicated, electronic information is easily removed, altered, or lost, and according to the Government Printing Office in the FDsys user manual, difficult to authenticate. The Tollestrup (2013) report, the Burwell (2013) memo and the subsequent announcement on the Federal Depository Library Program website demonstrated that without appropriations, government agencies are mandated to shut down and government websites become inactive or unavailable, further emphasizing the fallibility of government control of public information. From the government shutdown, Plumer (2013) and Mosher (2013) reported, information from federal government websites during the shutdown was unavailable, and the public was forced to seek non-government sources or other methods of locating information. The collective voices of the authors of these articles pointed to the fallacy of a single point of access, the challenges of collection, preservation, and archiving digital information, and the obstruction to public access. All authors agreed that information must be preserved for posterity and the preservation of democracy. However, few authors cited in this paper could agree on the best course of action to resolve the loss of control of government information, the ease of which government information can be altered or lost, the loss of access to government information in a shutdown, or how to ensure perpetual public access.

Access – or the lack of – is not a new topic for government information. The founders of the United States, as noted by Forte, Hartnett, and Sevetson (2011), understood that an informed citizenry was essential for a successful democracy, and wrote their intentions to keep the public informed of government actions into the U. S. Constitution. The outcry of American revolutionaries in the Declaration of Independence against King George denounced him for making participation in government "unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures," (as reprinted in Jacobs, Jacobs, & Yeo, 2005). Jacobs et al. (2005) also quoted Thomas Jefferson to have said in 1816 that the government's safety lies with the citizenry, and the citizenry cannot keep the government safe without information. U. S. president James Madison is quoted from 1822 as saying, "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both," (as reprinted in Forte et al, 2011, p. 9). For the following 250 years, the U. S. government has collected and produced information available to citizens, first in print, and now online through government websites.

One would presume that having government information electronically available anytime and anywhere via Internet would bring citizens closer to the information. However, as reported by Jorgensen (2006), even from the first appearance of government information on the Internet in 1970s and 1980s, librarians were concerned with the public's access to federal information and interaction with this new electronic version of government. Forte et al. (2011) stated that to navigate the government information available to the citizenry "requires specific knowledge, skills, and tools beyond a Web search engine" (p. 17). Jaeger and Bertot (2011) argued that even with the amount of government information available electronically, many citizens lack sufficient Internet access, technology, equipment, or the necessary skills and confidence – the means to acquire government information or services – without help. Many citizens, the authors continued, lack familiarity with government terms or government sites, and government agencies provide very little e-government support. Jorgenson (2006) reported that electronic information has always been problematic for informing citizens. The vulnerabilities of electronic information, Jorgensen added, include not only doubts about the integrity of online documents, accuracy of the documents, missing or 'fugitive' documents, indexing, archiving, preservation, user ability, and disability access, but more importantly, perpetual public access. Events such as 9/11, Jorgensen reported, and the subsequent hold on electronic government, make evident how quickly and easily federal information can become inaccessible. The vulnerability of access to information is obvious when there is available only an electronic copy, Jorgensen continued, "in one (easy to remove) location" (2006, p. 157).

The essential issue still remains, that even with sufficient technology and adequate searching skills, if most of the government's interaction with the citizenry is online via the Internet, what happens when the government makes its electronic self unavailable? Tollestrup (2013) reported on the situation that is created by the Antideficiency Act, a federal law that bars government activity and requires federal agencies to terminate operations and shut down when Congress and the president cannot agree on funding measures. The duration of the lack of appropriations is called a funding gap. Funding gaps and the subsequent shutdown of government operations have occurred eighteen times since 1977, Tollestrup stated, with durations ranging anywhere from a single day to twenty one days. The October 2013 shutdown rendered the federal government inactive for seventeen days. The only exceptions to the shutdown, according to the Antideficiency Act, are the most critical operations to protect the "safety of human life or the protection of property," (as reprinted in Tollestrup, 2013, p. 2). The Washington Post (Plumer, 2013) published the extensive list of government operations that came to a screeching halt from the disaccord between the president and Congress. Plumer confirmed that the only operations to continue were the absolutely essential functions of the government to provide public safety and national security and those programs ordered to continue by law. Notably inaccessible during the recent October shutdown were agency websites. An official memorandum dated September 17, 2013, from Sylvia M. Burwell, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the heads of executive departments and agencies answered the question of keeping government agency websites online during the shutdown, "The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel orthe obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse," (p. 13). The shutdown, by terminating the processes of information location and procurement by the public and preventing citizens from adequately interacting with the federal government, essentially put e-government 'out of order.'

In addition, Mosher (2013) reported, the shutdown of federal agency websites forced American taxpayers to turn to general search engines such as Google, and Web archives such as the WayBack Machine to be able to interact somewhat with government information. The problem with these options, Mosher continued, is that they are limited in their access to the information. Google copies websites every time the crawler passes over it, but eventually the cached copy is the 'out of order' copy. The WayBack Machine gives access to the homepage of a site, but only is able to offer very shallow content behind the mother page.

Professors, students, librarians, and the public were made only too aware of the problems of a government shutdown on free permanent public access in a born-digital information society. According to Hoduski (2013),

Librarians around the nation report that they are unable to help patrons find the information they need to do research, write articles for journals and newspapers, prepare class assignments, find laws and regulations relevant to the conduct of their businesses, find information needed to file law suits, complete mortgage applications, access weather information, do historical and genealogical research, and contact government officials through agency websites (para. 2).

The shutdown prevented accessibility to government information by professors and graduate students in government information courses at universities throughout the country. This author personally experienced the effects of the shutdown, and became very frustrated from the inaccessibility to census information on American FactFinder to complete an assignment for the Valdosta State University MLIS government documents course. More examples of critical government information unavailable to citizens during the shutdown, Hoduski (2013) continued, included: research information on climatological data pertinent to a legal case; a lapse in time to file a legal suit with no extension; a lapse in processing housing mortgage applications; research necessary for an article on the 1938 Hurricane, denial of replacement of birth certificates and social security cards; data from the Center for Disease Control; census research, research requiring nautical charts, educational research from ERIC, property tax information from the National Register of Historic Places.

Historically, the Government Printing Office (GPO) has been charged with printing and disseminating information to the some 1300 libraries in Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). However, as reported by Jacobs, et al. (2005), more and more federal agencies are producing information that is not passing through the conventional process of bibliographic control by the GPO, nor being deposited and preserved by the federal depository libraries. The current information dissemination model by e-government comprises of digital-born information provided to the general public via federal agency websites. At first, this seems to provide more of the public with more information at any time and from any where there is a computer and adequate Internet access available. This model, according to Shuler (2005) also eliminates the need for institutional mediation of libraries to control the information available. Shuler described this rerouting of information as a "digital revolution," that has broken "open the containers... once called publications and spilled their contents... into a whole new environment of retrieval and repackaging," (2005, p. 381). However, according to the Federal Digital System (FDsys) Search User Manual, technology permits electronic documents to be altered very easily making verification of authenticity very difficult (U. S. Government Printing Office, 2010), a major complaint of having the government's documents freely available via the Web. In addition, the rerouting of information leaves the GPO out of the information loop and creates 'fugitive documents' trapped in digital purgatory making them harder to obtain. Jacobs et al. (2005) confirmed that the GPO estimates that 50 percent of government electronic documents are fugitive, and only 20 percent of the information produced by federal agencies is actually provided to the GPO for dissemination.

The problem with having most of the government's information available only online, as the shutdown harshly demonstrated, is the lack of access to information when controlled by a single entity. The convenience of an electronic government has shifted the control of information from the numerous institutions formerly charged with providing the information to the public – the depository libraries – to a single entity: the federal government. Peterson and Jacobs (2005) noted that previously libraries controlled decisions about content, organization, access, and protection of users' privacy. More and more, with the new electronic form of government information, the federal government controls these aspects. According to Peterson and Jacobs (2005), eighty-four percent of government information is now available only on web-servers controlled by the government, with only fourteen percent of government information being deposited in libraries. If those figures are correct, and eighty-four percent of government information is only available through government controlled websites, then what of the access to information during situations such as the recent government shutdown, when government databases were completely inaccessible? This is the danger of a single entity having control of the access to information. Reliance on a single point of access creates the potential crisis of no access at all. According to Crotti (2013), in the world of computing, finance, and commerce, reliance on a single point of access is considered to be one of the ten worst mistakes an entity can make.

The failure of access to government information caused by the shutdown is a major reason many in the library and information community oppose government information bypassing the GPO and Federal Depository Libraries to be published directly to agency websites. Many argue that this dissemination model is unorganized and obscures information more than it improves accessibility because only those who know how to find it are able to access it. Jacobs et al. (2005) argued that just because a few items are available online does not indicate a systematic preservation or organization for future reference. According to the authors, having access twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to government websites confuses people with a false security of access to everything. Government information determines the welfare of the democracy, as Peterson and Jacobs stated, and is therefore too important to be controlled by a single entity (2005).

What is the solution to permanent public access to government information? Many have suggestions to prevent the inaccessibility to digital government information in the future. Some professionals advocate harvesting and digitization, and Jacobs et al. (2005) noted that many different groups are working to archive the different items available on the Web. At first this seems like a viable suggestion. However, the authors continued, without a systematic procedure, there is the danger of inconsistencies and the resulting chaos is likely to keep information from being found (Jacobs et al., 2005). Others advocate the replication of content to provide assurance of perpetual free public access, something, according to Blakely and Jacobs (2009) which "no single system can provide alone" (p. 15). The need for multiple copies, or redundancy, is widely accepted as a best practice. Jacobs et al. (2005) noted that Stanford University's practice of redundancy protects the integrity of library materials by storing many copies in separate digital collections in the Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe (LOCKSS) system.

According to Blakely and Jacobs (2009), a digital depository FDLP system that provides duplication of content to ensure access and employs multiple technologies of hardware, software, and operating systems will guard against the fallibility of single system failure. In a digital deposit collaboration, the authors proposed, the Federal Depository Libraries harvest digital information from state and local governments and non-government entities to build a consumer-centered collection based on subjects or disciplines. This digital content depository collaboration provides users with multiple access points. In this model, Blakely and Jacobs (2009) continued, information could be accessed from not only government agencies, but also the Federal Depository, library OPACs, institutional repositories, and Web search engines. Multiple storage solutions, the authors added, such as existing institutional repositories and expansion of existing archives like JSTOR and HathiTrust are options for space management.

Jacobs et al. (2005) also proposed the central depository model to continue the longstanding relationship between the FDLP and the GPO. In this model, as the authors suggested, the GPO becomes a preservation service instead of a printing service for the government; indexing and cataloging documents in a central depository, providing rich metadata and a conformance to standards to facilitate document location. This does in fact, follow the GPO's current proposed model of a single monolithic database of government documents, but with a thorough system of metadata rich cataloging and indexing, the information and its location is preserved. Kumar (2006) noted that the GPO, with the new Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology, could easily authenticate electronic government documents. After authentication, the GPO would send a copy to the FDLP libraries, with a permalink to the central depository copy in its digital location. A back up of the central depository would be performed daily in a mirrored storage, in an open access location, perhaps publicly available to all. In this way, as suggested by Blakeley and Jacobs (2009), all libraries may harvest the necessary information to provide tailored collections pertinent to their customer base. One such successful preservation model of born-digital information exists for social science data, Jacobs et al. (2005) argued. In this model, data is created with accompanying metadata rich files in a format specific for use in different electronic environments and for long-term preservation and storage.

Conclusion

The recent government shutdown should serve as a wake-up call for all concerned that the current information dissemination model is not acceptable, and steps must be taken to ensure information access even when e-government is 'out of order.' Even when available, the literature clearly demonstrates that the new model of e-government information dissemination is faulty. All agree that something must be done to change the lack of orderly preservation of born-digital information. There are many suggestions to improve the preservation and access to government information available. The literature indicates that of critical need is a public access digital depository as in the model suggested by Blakeley & Jacobs (2009), and Jacobs et al. (2005). A resource of this magnitude, along with a multi-faceted collaboration among government agencies and libraries is essential to protect free permanent public access to not only current government information available online, but also to maintain historical information, and to provide long-term preservation for future data. Libraries, with a government information digital repository, and with a tailored guide to the information based on patrons' interests and needs, would be better equipped to "walk people through a battered information landscape that makes it more intelligible, accessible, and useful to them" (Shuler, 2013, para. 3).

References

Blakeley, R., & Jacobs, J. A. (2009, October 27). Demystifying digital deposit: What it is and what it could do for the future of the FDLP. Retrieved November 24, 2013 from lecture notes online website: http://freegovinfo.info/node/2785

Burwell, S. M. (2013, September 17). Planning for agency operations during a potential lapse in appropriations [PDF]. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2013/m-13-22.pdf

Crotti, N. (2013). How to prepare before a disaster strikes. Finance & Commerce. Retrieved November 24, 2013 from http://finance-commerce.com/2013/01/entrepreneurial-how-to-prepare-before-a-disaster-strikes/

Forte, E. J., Hartnett, C. J., & Sevetson, A. L. (2011). Fundamentals of government information. New York, NY: Neal Schuman.

Government shutdown. (2013, September 30). Retrieved November 16, 2013, from http://www.fdlp.gov/component/content/article/19-general/1535-government-shutdown-will-furlough-employees-and-halt-services

Hoduski, B. A. (2013). Shutdown cuts off public access to government information. Law Library Resource Xchange. Retrieved October 3, 2013 from http://www.llrx.com/features/shutdown-cuts-off-govdocs-access.htm

Jacobs, J. A., Jacobs, J. R., & Yeo, S. (2005). Government information in the digital age: The once and future federal depository library program. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(3), 198-208. http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2005.02.006

Jaeger, P. T., & Bertot, J. (2011). Responsibility rolls down: Public libraries and the social and policy obligations of ensuring access to e-government and government information. Public Library Quarterly, 30(2), 91-116. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2011.575699

Jorgensen, J. (2006). The online government information movement: Retracing the route to DigiiGov through the federal documents collection. The Reference Librarian, 45(94), 139-162. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J120v45n94_09

Kumar, S. L. (2006). Providing perpetual access to government information. Reference Librarian, 45(94), 225-232. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J120v45n94_13

Mosher, D. (2013, October 2). How to access government websites during the shutdown [Blog post]. Retrieved October 3, 2013 from Popular Science website: http://www.popsci.com/article/technology/how-access-government-websites-during-shutdown

Peterson, K., & Jacobs, J. A. (2005). Government information in the digital era: Free culture or controlled substance? [PDF]. Free Culture and the Digital Library Symposium Proceedings. Atlanta, Georgia: MetaScholar Initiative at Emory University., pp. 154-178. Retrieved from http://www.metaarchive.org/sites/metaarchive.org/files/FCDL-Proceedings-FINAL_0.pdf

Plumer, B. (2013, September 30). Absolutely everything you need to know about how the government shutdown will work [Blog post]. Retrieved October 12, 2013 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/30/absolutely-everything-you-need-to-know-about-how-the-government-shutdown-will-work/

Shuler, J. (2005). The political and economic future of federal depository libraries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(4), 377-382.

Shuler, J. A. (2013, October 3). Re: The shutdown and its effect on public service, public relations, and access to government information. Message posted to Discussion of government document issues <GOVDOC-L@lists.psu.edu>.

Tollestrup, J. (2013, October). Federal funding gaps: A brief overview [PDF]. Congressional Research Service: Report. Retrieved November 30, 2013 from https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS20348.pdf

U. S. Government Printing Office. (2010, July). Federal digital system (FDsys)
search user manual [PDF]. Retrieved November 4, 2013 from http://www.gpo.gov/help/fdsys_user_manual.pdf