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Bulletin, October/November 2010


Government Information: Adding Value as an Expert Guide

by Peggy Garvin

Today’s professionals need to keep up with relevant news and find reliable answers many times in the course of a workday. AIIP members can help. AIIP members are valued for their skill at finding and analyzing information but, just as important, we can find and analyze information sources. This skill has its roots in the traditional collection development role of librarians. It requires broad, current knowledge of research needs and priorities, potential resources and their alternatives and publishing trends, as well as a general awareness of a practitioner’s computing environment – all within a specific domain of expertise.

For better or worse, the day many people got Internet access on their desktops was the day they became – at least in their own minds or their managers’ eyes – researchers. Unfortunately, most employees were given this incredibly powerful tool for global online information access without the benefit of basic research training. It has been over 10 years since the web came into our offices, and we are beginning to accept a few inconvenient truths:

  • Having access to a universe of information does not mean you will be able to find the bit you need when you need it. 
     
  • Searching for information inefficiently consumes time better spent elsewhere.
     
  • Finding information for research papers at college with a wealth of costly campus-wide subscription databases is very different than finding information in the workplace.
     
  • Keeping up with the changes in online content is often a job in itself. 

With rapid innovation in the web world, the need for expert advice has become more urgent.

Washington, DC, is an information-intense environment. The United States government creates or collects legal information, technical information, health and medical information, regulatory filings, news, consumer guides, data of all sorts, economic analysis, scientific research results, strategy documents, international studies, histories, information about government and even information about government information. Washington also has interest groups interested in just about everything, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, policy advocates, embassies, trade and industry associations, congressional staff, think tanks and legislative liaisons that are continually consuming and producing information. Even before the web, information traffic was heavy. With the web, the volume of information and the speed with which it is shared are on a continuous upward trajectory. What’s more, the direction, format and very nature of the traffic have changed and continue to evolve daily. In this environment, even the most tech-savvy staffer needs an expert guide to identify the fastest, most reliable routes. 

The Internet-empowered policy, politics and news professionals of Washington face the same challenges in the same areas as other professionals:

  • finding information and sources when Google and other favorites are inadequate (and realizing when this is the case);
     
  • keeping up with an endless stream of new website, new product and new feature announcements;
     
  • integrating new information streams from blogs, social media sites and mobile apps into an existing workflow;
     
  • determining the authenticity and quality of information available from a site;
     
  • understanding the level of privacy or confidentiality a new website affords you and your clients; and 
     
  • reducing information overload from duplicative or marginal information sources.

Some challenges are particularly relevant for the Washington researcher. The authenticity and integrity of information are important in any field, but particularly so in legal, legislative and regulatory areas. The integrity of documents is important, and so is validation of sources. As government participation on third party websites such as Facebook and Twitter grows, the potential for imposter accounts grows. Choice overload is common. Because so much U.S. government information is not protected by copyright, the content is frequently repurposed to create slightly different new products. 

Discovery is difficult, too. Government information is a significant part of what is called the deep web content, which does not surface in popular search engines. Even when government webmasters have optimized their sites for indexing, the content often cannot compete with private commercial sites optimized for a high rank in search results. Another challenge is finding pre-web documents in an online market focused on what is happening this day, this minute. In a democracy that has been around for several centuries, documents from 1910 or 1810 can be as important as those from 2010. Some are online; many are not. Finally, customer support can be minimal or difficult to locate. Most federal offices cannot supply the nation with the level of customer service that premium commercial providers can deliver to their pool of customers.

The recent history of the Federal Register, a core information resource in Washington, is an excellent example of the choice overload researchers confront. The daily Federal Register gives public notice of regulations, proposed regulations and other executive branch announcements. The Register is available to search for free on the Government Printing Office (GPO) FDsys.gov service, and it is carried by at least five for-fee commercial online services. In October 2009, GPO announced that it would begin offering the full text of the Register online in XML format for free bulk download. Entrepreneurial web developers instantly began creating new products from it. We now have the free web services OpenRegs.com, FedThread.us, Justia Regulation Tracker and GovPulse.us, all bringing a different approach to Federal Register content. 

As the federal government makes more information available for free bulk download, we can expect to see more energy injected into the formerly stable world of government documents. Government publishers are moving forward cautiously to take advantage of web innovations. The U.S. Government Printing Office and the National Archives and Records Administration collaborated with the independent developers of GovPulse.us to create the beta Federal Register 2.0 <www.federalregister.com> website, which launched in July 2010. The site’s accessibility and information-sharing features are likely to bring a larger and more diverse audience into the regulatory process.

Has the average Washington policy wonk or congressional staffer kept up with all of these developments? The odds are unlikely. And the average recent college graduate will be asking, “What’s the Federal Register?” Not to worry. AIIP experts can step in to help managers and their staffs spend less time finding good information and more time using it.


Peggy Garvin provides training, writing and consulting to users of government information online. She edits the annual reference book E-Government and Web Directory (ISBN 978-1-59888-421-0) from Bernan Press and regularly writes about trends in publishing government information. Peggy owns Garvin Information Consulting, www.garvinconsulting.com, and can be contacted through her website.