LAWRENCE — From Census statistics to federal investigations, the U.S. government is responsible for making thousands of its documents available to the public every year.
While the Internet has made it easier to share such documents, officials have expressed concern about how to maintain all this electronic data over time.
Call it a “digital wild west,” said Marilu Goodyear, University of Kansas public administration professor.
“We’re moving rapidly from paper distribution to electronic distribution, but there’s no federal government plan for ensuring that information remains available,” said Goodyear, who recently chaired a panel of five scholars who reviewed the operations of the Government Printing Office. “An important part of democracy is knowing what our government is doing. If we don’t have access to that information, then we’ve lost transparency, which is fundamental to democracy.”
The panel’s report, “Rebooting the Government Printing Office: Keeping America Informed in the Digital Age,” was released earlier this month by the National Academy of Public Administration.
One of the panel’s main recommendations is for Congress to establish a collaborative, interagency process for developing and implementing a government-wide strategy for managing the “life cycle” of digital government information.
The report includes a total of 27 findings and 15 recommendations on how the GPO can best position itself in the digital age and strengthen its business model as demand for printed documents decreases.
Since President Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, the Government Printing Office has been tasked with keeping the nation informed. It ensures citizens have long-term access to government information, from historical documents to government journals, including the Congressional Record and the Federal Register.
In 2012, Congress tapped the National Academy of Public Administration to select the expert panel to review GPO operations, since 97 percent of federal documents today are “born digital” — not printed on paper.
“With the ‘flattening’ of the world and the explosion of new technologies in recent years, citizens not only expect more governmental transparency; they also want documents to be made widely available in electronic format on a variety of devices in a short time horizon,” the executive summary of the report states.
The federal government has relied mostly on the 1,200 libraries nationwide that would keep its records on file, ensuring copies would be available to the public years after they were created, Goodyear said.
“Now, when the Census bureau puts something on its website, it may get taken down later, and there is a need for the federal government to ensure access to that information,” she said.
To complete the study, Goodyear and the panel interviewed a variety of people involved in the production and distribution of government documents, from librarians to private sector printers over a 10-month period, she said.
The National Academy of Public Administration is a nonprofit agency that tackles the nation’s most critical and complex public management challenges. It provides expert advice to government leaders on building more efficient and accountable organizations.
The report is available online.