In June, 1994, the American Society for Information Science (ASIS) was invited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to co-sponsor the Fifth Solomon's Conference on Public Access to Federal Electronic Information. The conference was the first in this series to include participation outside the federal government. With the stated purpose of exploring "the ways that changes in technology, coupled with efforts to reinvent government are redefining the policy and implementation issues associated with providing public access to federal information," HHS chose ASIS as an appropriate partner to achieve a high level of public participation.
Following months of planning and negotiating to ensure that all aspects of the "public" were included - state and local governments, academics, business and industry, professional and trade associations, citizen's action groups and the general public - the conference kicked off with 135 attendees prepared to spend two days in general and working sessions.
Background of the Solomon's Conference
The Solomon's Conferences, named for the Solomons, Maryland, setting for the first three meetings in the series, began under the sponsorship of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with a forum focused on what agencies were doing to make their information available to the public electronically.
The Department of Agriculture sponsored the second conference to discuss public access to government computers. An agreement emerged from this conference to develop a policy framework to serve as a model for the agencies in developing their own policies. The Third Solomon's Conference, sponsored by the Department of Commerce, addressed specific issues and concerns of the agencies who were being pressed to make more information available in electronic form. The meeting ended with the establishment of five working groups to deliberate on the following topics:
The Fifth Solomon's Conference
With the addition of public participation at the latest meeting, conference planners scheduled a range of general and working sessions to ensure that all attendees could contribute to and participate in the deliberations.
The following were among the general sessions:
statement of Administration initiatives from Bruce McConnell, Director of Information Policy, Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
panel chaired by Richard Weingarten, Executive Director of the Computing Research Association, featuring views from Capital Hill (David McMillen, staff of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs' Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information); from state (Lorraine Amico, Council of State Governments ) and local (Sharon Priest, City Manager of Little Rock, Arkansas) governments; from the public (Edwin Beller, Senior Editorial Specialist for the American Association of Retired Persons' [AARP] Division of Public Outreach, and Sharon Jarvis, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Black Voter Participation) and from industry (Ken Allen, President of the Information Industry Association).
kenote address by John Garrett, Director of Information Resources for the Corporation for National Research Initiatives.
Prior to the meeting's start, the planning group identified five specific issues around which working groups would be created for intense discussion and deliberation. Two sections of each working group met and formulated reports and recommendations that were presented before the conference concluded. These working groups included:
Meeting consumer needs and setting customer service standards, co-chaired by Kathleen Eisenbeis, Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and Stan Prochaska, Special Assistant to the Director, Department of Agriculture Office of Public Affairs.
Cooperation among different levels of government, co-chaired by Ann Prentice, Dean, University of Maryland College of Library and Information Services, and Abby Pirnie, Director, Office of Cooperative Environmental Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Restrictions on the use of data, co-chaired by Bonnie Carroll, President, Information International, and Elliot Siegel, Associate Director for Health Information Programs Development, National Library of Medicine.
The role of intermediaries in public access, co-chaired by Beth Duston, President, Information Strategists, and Wally Finch, Associate Director, Office of Business Development, National Technical Information Service.
When the public talks back, co-chaired by Richard Civille, Center for Civic Networking, and Frank Lally, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information Resources Management, Department of Veteran's Affairs.
Trudi Bellardo Hahn, independent consultant, and Paula Lovas, American Association of Retired Persons, supported both the planning committee and the working groups before and during the conference.
This conference represented an opportunity for ASIS to participate in information policy discussions of major importance not only to the federal government, but to the American people as well. It provided visibility for the association and has resulted in a number of contacts that will bode well for the membership in the future. The ASIS Information Policy Committee (formerly the Public Affairs Committee) seized this opportunity to further ASIS' participation in such gatherings and is suggesting that many other activities such as this be undertaken in the future to raise the recognition of ASIS as a valuable, objective source of information to support governmental and other policy decisions. ASIS members have a great deal to offer the current Administration initiatives related to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) and we should seek out every opportunity to do so.
The following summary reports of discussions held by several of the working groups offer a brief insight into the dynamics of theFifth Solomons Conference.
Meeting Customer Needs and Setting Customer Service Standards
Not in the collective memory of the group's members has the political climate in Washington been more receptive to federal agencies directing their intellectual and financial resources toward improving information products and services. The challenge is finding an effective management strategy that not only satisfies the majority of the customer needs, but is also realistic and achievable given the constraints and cutbacks of bureaucratic life today. The working group members balanced their enthusiasm for the opportunities new information technologies provide with caution. Many of the participants are managers and are keenly aware of the proliferation of government information sources beyond their control and ability to evaluate. The consensus was that government information providers need to know their own business first, then proceed with a plan to define their customer base and assess the information needs within the context of their own mission. Old assumptions about what is being done and how to measure success are no longer valid. Today's information manager must accept change as a given and be prepared to design systems that will evolve as user needs change. The working group identified key issues, discussed one agency's experience in developing a Customer Service Plan, defined a list of customer satisfaction and service delivery priorities, articulated its recommendations and suggested items for immediate action and further discussion to the conference as a whole.
Meeting Customer Needs and Setting Customer Service Standards
Trudi Bellardo Hahn (support to the second working group)
The working group on Meeting Customer Needs and Setting Customer Service Standards discussed implications for agencies of the National Performance Review, the NII and President Clinton's September 11, 1993, Executive Order, all of which place serving customer needs as their highest priority. In its discussions, the group distinguished agencies that have a legislative, judicial or executive mandate to disseminate information to the public from those that do not have a mandate, but who may disseminate information generated in support of their programs. Both types of agencies can identify their specific customers and their needs through input from advisory boards and public interest groups, feedback from customer inquiries, and needs assessment through surveys and focus groups.
The group acknowledged the public's general lack of trust in the government, but recognized that advances in information technology have raised expectations of the government's role in disseminating public information. Agencies' marketing and education programs also have increased demands for information, as have critical events and media events. The group's consensus was that the introduction of new dissemination tools, such as toll-free telephone numbers, electronic bulletin boards, kiosks and fax-on-demand, does not reduce the use of older tools. The new tools only raise the public's expectations for convenience, speed and accuracy, which puts additional strains on agencies that are attempting to do more with fewer resources.
At this time, many agencies, even those that have a mandate to disseminate public information, do not have a customer service plan. The group judged many government information tools to be poorly presented and organized, culturally inappropriate, aimed at the wrong target audience, conflicting with other values of the target group and sometimes containing information that conflicts with other sources (even other government agencies). Customers also face barriers of information literacy, language and math skills, accessibility, security, privacy and costs.
The general customer service standard that emerged from the group's discussion was "We must get the right information to the right people in the right format at the right time for the right price."
Cooperation Among Various Levels of Government
One of the early speakers urged us to think "outside the box." ASIS members are notable "out-of-the-box" thinkers and planners. Interspersing the group, representing government officials at different levels, with ASIS members expanded conversation and ideas beyond local experiences. For some it was an opportunity to think more broadly.
Time was too limited to discuss the issues more than superficially and there was a strong recommendation that these discussions be continued with a view to seeking concrete solutions.
ASIS is a good leader for such information discussions.
Role of Intermediaries
What is the role of government in adding value to its data? What does value-added mean? How does an agency determine a price for a product? Does it include development and acquisition costs, or just dissemination costs? What is the agency mission? Is it changing? Who are the agency's primary user groups? These were some of the questions debated in a lively forum on the Role of Intermediaries. An intermediary was identified as the government, private (for-profit and not-for-profit) organizations, libraries and individuals who make data available to users through publishing, archiving and information services. The government, however, has a dual role: as a data user and a data provider.
Twenty-four individuals representing a wide cross-section of information interests from government agencies (both legislative and executive branches), private for-profit companies, foundations, libraries and consultants developed five recommendations:
As co-chair of the discussion topic, I was pleased to see the private sector discussing mutual concerns and issues with the federal sector in an open and candid manner. This was the first forum to my knowledge where a real respect and understanding developed for each other's point of view.
At a recent Information Industry Association meeting, several members representing large information companies indicated that they had participated in the conference, and they were pleased to have the opportunity to discuss issues with the government representatives. ASIS was cited as being instrumental, a real catalyst in this effort, and they were commended for their good work. Congratulations to ASIS and most especially the Information Policy Committee who put it all together.