Monday, December 7, 2009

US Government & Information Policy

The American federal government, like all governments, consists of policies that are to aid the efficiency, direction, goals, and sustain the government. There are a wide range of policies such as education policy, economic policy, foreign policy, etc. Policy is very important for governments and information policy is exceptionally important to democratic governments.
When considering organizations that compile and disseminate massive amounts of information the federal government is perhaps at the top of the list. In order to operate effectively and intentionally the government must have a set of standards for managing all the information it possesses. Information policy which comprises of all the laws, regulations, and public policies that encourage or discourage the flow, access, and regulation of information to the public is becoming more and more of an imperative facet of our government. Ian Rowlads states, “Information access and disclosure are critical elements in the working of participative democracies and measures concerning these aspects can be found in most areas of public policy.” Citizens need to be informed in order to participate in the government and the government likewise needs to have policies established to provide the necessary information to its citizens. Information policy, which is newer in existence than other policies like education and foreign, has become a focus of attention over the last thirty years or so with the advent of the democratization of information, digitization of documents, and the Internet. Historically, the first signs of systematic US national information policies emerged in the early 1960s. The Cold War and the space race are just two large topics that exemplify the growing importance of the nation’s scientific and technical information and how that information needed to be protected and managed for the nation’s security. Politicians and policy makers needed to have well thought out policies to manage the information and as a result people began to use the term information policy. Other major events such as: the Vietnam War, Watergate scandal, the military-industrial complex, the emergence of the computer, the Web, and 9/11 affected our nation’s communal perception of information policy
One of the most important policies passed by the federal government in regard to information policy is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was enacted in “ … 1966, provides for any person – individual or corporate, regardless of citizenship -- presumptive access to unpublished existing, and identifiable records of the agencies of the Federal executive branch without having to demonstrate a need or reason for such a request.” The FOIA was passed because citizens and Congress had issue with the availability of information to the public from the executive branch and felt it necessary to begin to make official policy that would aid the democratic process. The FOIA pertains to documents that have not already been publicly published through the federal government’s information mouthpiece: the Government Printing Office (GPO). The federal government has published large amounts of literature through the GPO since 1860, and has used the GPO as its preferred method of information distribution. One of the goals of the GPO is to keep America informed, making them of specific interest when considering the government’s information policy (
The FOIA has gone through many updates as it has been critiqued and more importantly as information technology has changed. Information policy is unique to government policy in that it usually is reactive to the technologies that provide access to the information; policies have changed as print, telephony, radio, computers, and the Internet grew in popularity. The advent of the computer and the Internet put information policy back on the federal docket in the late eighties and early nineties. The government, local, state, and federal, has gone through an intense digitization of information. Naturally, this process has not been extremely smooth and has raised many other issues. Librarians have been in the forefront of these debates as they are one of the major interest groups that try to maintain and properly manage the information in order for the FOIA and other information policies to be effective for the populace. One specific issue that rose from the electronic information promotions was that after documents were digitized core information could on occasion disappear from public view or the public was forced to pay a fee to access the public funded information.
After the attacks of 9/11 the FOIA and the populaces’ access to publicly funded information came under attack. The executive branch of the federal government put national security above the established information policy. Water system plans, structural layouts of buildings, and other digitized information began to disappear in an effort to keep the wrong people from finding information that would aid them in committing terrorist acts. The administration’s ability to change their information policy and then quickly cut public access to the information because it was digitized exemplified the volatility information is when hard copies are not the norm.
Information policy should often be viewed as a verb rather than a noun according to Rowlands, and this is specifically true when considering government information policy. Policy making comprises a series of inputs (people, information, research) and outputs (access to democracy, better access to information), and when seen as this process we see that it is much more a verb rather than a thing. The information policy verb will continue to be in action as government, technology, and society changes, but its importance must never be overlooked.
Interesting sites to explore:

Clemons, C. S. A. (Summer 2009). Permanent Electronic Access to Government
Information: A Study of Federal, State, and Local Documents. Electronic Journal
of Academic and Special Librarianship,

Relyea, H. C. (April 2009). Federal Freedom of Information Policy: Highlights of Recents
Developments. Government Information Quarterly, 26(2), 314-320.

Rowlands, I. (Ed.) (2003) International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science
(2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.


Florence said...

Talk about us needing the freedom to access information! We all need to be aware of opinions and theories on both sides of various concerns in order to make informed decisions. I have been hearing talk recently in the news about the FOIA and the issue of global warming. Apparently, some scientists supporting the theory that global warming is indeed caused by human activity, have encourage the repression of some contradicting opinions, thus denying the public the opportunity to evaluate both sides of the issue. The following article explains a bit of what I am talking about:

Please check it out!

I am not expressing a personal opinion one way or another where this issue is concerned; what I am expressing is the concern over attempts to mute the public’s access to information.

Amy Smola said...

While I support freedom of people to access information, you do make a very good point about the possibility of that information falling into the wrong hands. I might be interested in the lay-out of the White House or the Pentagon from an architectural or historical point of view. But a terrorist intent on doing harm could use this information in a very harmful way. Obviously the government wants to keep its people safe and this is certainly understandable and expected, but it is sad that certain information must be repressed due to the risk of it falling into the hands of the wrong person.

Adrianne said...

We live in a time when people deserve to be informed and have access to unlimited information. I do agree that if I want information for a valuable purpose, I should be able to get it. However, the mention made to blueprints of buildings falling into the wrong hands unsettles me. I agree with the governments' decision to block this information, especially during times like these when terrorist attacks are more of a reality. But I also know that if someone is determined enough to get this information, they are going to find a way. Whether it be through hacking digitized records, or knowing someone on the
inside", some people always find a way to get what the want. It's unfortunate that we even have to give this another thought.

J Moses said...

It's interesting to think about Information Policy as a verb. The description of the way in which digitized information can be manipulated to remove information that has been deemed inappropriate for public eyes is an unfortunate reality. It made me start to wonder if the reverse happens just as often. How many times has information been modified or added to inorder to put a spin on information and change the original intent? It really makes you realize that you must remain educated, objective and open minded with all that you read.

Wendy Schneider said...

It's unfortunate that our country has had to take some drastic measures to protect its citizens after 9/11, but it's more important that we are all safe and free. If it means not having access to as much information or having to take my shoes off before getting on an airplane, I'm all for it.

Tom Nowak said...

We shouldn't be publishing detailed schematics of the Pentagon or the inner workings of the missile system. But not everything kept out of the public view is done so legitimately. Claims of national security and executive privilege have been used to hide politically embarrassing information and skirt the FOIA ever since it went into effect. The practice has accelerated since 9/11, and the atmosphere of fear cultivated since then has made it more difficult to challenge government attempts to hide information.

Also, the FOIA does not apply to Congress or the judiciary, which make their own rules on what information they will release.

I do think the FOIA has made a fundamental difference in the nation's information policy in that the presumption now is that information should be available to the public all the time, not at the discretion of officials or bureaucrats who don't want to be bothered. Similar laws at the state level are even more effective because there is no national security shield, executive privilege is not as well established, and they tend to be broader. And despite some abuses, the Web has made it easier and cheaper to make public documents available.

But I believe that while the FOIA and other sunshine laws have improved public access to information, much information relevant to the most important decisions being made by our government remains hidden. Library organizations have an obligation to speak out on this, not as a partisan political issue (many abuses instituted by the Bush administration have been embraced and sometimes broadened by Obama), but in defense of access to information.

Jamie Baker said...

FOIA is an invaluable resource. Many times when people try to get access to governmental workings, they are met with resistance, even when the very documents they are trying to uncover have a huge impact on their lives. To be a truly democratic nation, the people need to be able to access the information to stay informed. I do, however, believe that certain things must remain hidden to protect the greater good. Now if only we could only do a better job at electing the right public officials who must keep these secrets.